A personal celebration by Jack Van Zandt of Harrison Birtwistle on his 90th birthday

One day in 1953, Harrison “Harry” Birtwistle travelled with his friends Alexander “Sandy” Goehr and Peter Maxwell “Max” Davies to London from Manchester, where they were fellow students of Richard Hall at the Royal Manchester College of Music, (RMCM, later to become the Royal Northern College of Music, RNCM), to watch Goehr’s father—Berlin-born composer, conductor and Schoenberg pupil Walter Goehr—conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in the BBC broadcast of the first British performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Sandy Goehr and his younger colleagues knew of Messiaen from Hall’s class and through what they could glean from reading the copy of his book Technique de mon langage musical in the College library, but they knew little of his music, as recordings and scores were few and far between. They were all excited to be there for the performance and to get the chance to meet Messiaen and the piano soloist in the work, Yvonne Loriod, who would become Messiaen’s second wife in 1961. However, what the three young composers didn’t know on that trip down to London was that it would be an evening that would change their lives forever.

By accounts given to me by all three of them, they were stunned and completely awestruck by the work. They had never heard anything like it. There was more to come. Afterwards, the three young students went to a post-concert party at the home of music critic Felix Aprahamian, who had known Messiaen since 1936 and was instrumental in getting the Turangalîla-Symphonie performance. At one point in the evening, Loriod sat down at Aprahamian’s grand piano, propped a score up in front of her, and began playing the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez, who had been one of Messiaen’s pupils after the liberation of Paris.

The New Music Manchester Group in 1955. From left, bottom row: Alexander Goehr, Audrey Goehr (later Crawford), John Dow; top row: Harrison Birtwistle, John Ogdon, Elgar Howarth, Peter Maxwell Davies. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Laelia Goehr

The Boulez sonata was only a few years old then, and it was another stunning experience for Harry and his friends, for more reasons than one. During the Boulez performance, Loriod cut a finger, perhaps while quickly turning a page of the score, which began to bleed. Nonetheless, she ignored it and kept going to the last bar, and by the end her blood was smeared all over the keys. Sandy remembers that the performance and the piece blew everyone away, and that they left the party excitedly agreeing that they wanted to compose music that would make someone’s fingers bleed, just like Boulez!

Harry Birtwistle was raised in Accrington, Lancashire, and as a young man had taken up the clarinet with the encouragement of his mother. He excelled at it and played in bands and ensembles, some of which were made up of workers from the textile and other industries the working class town was known for. His talents got him a scholarship in 1952 to study at the RMCM, where he was under the tutelage of clarinetist Frederick Thurston and then began attending Richard Hall’s composition class with the two friends he made there, Sandy (who was the oldest and more experienced) and Max. It should be noted that at this time Harry was not yet a composer by any means.

As a young man he dabbled in writing bits of melody in the style of the British composers whose music he had played, such as Vaughan Williams and Elgar, but these juvenile efforts were nothing more than elementary imitation, in his remembrance. However, the fortuitous coincidence of meeting and befriending Sandy and Max as well as fellow students pianist John Ogdon and future conductor Elgar Howarth would inspire Harry to explore the music of contemporary composers and later give him the confidence to begin composing himself.

Another incidence that occurred on the road to Harry taking up composition was in 1954, when he and Sandy Goehr went to Darmstadt for the Summer Courses for New Music. With Goehr as his guide (his Piano Sonata, op. 2 was performed there), Birtwistle would meet European composers and hear their latest music for the first time. Goehr remembers they met and became friends with Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Henri Pousseur, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna, and most importantly to Harry, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who were two of the prime movers of the Darmstadt School. Harry would later say that Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître and Stockhausen’s Zeitmaße were the two pieces from this time that would introduce him to a new sound world that he wanted to explore. Also that year in Darmstadt was the beginning of a deep interest in the music of Anton Webern who was elevated to cult status.

Birtwistle has credited Goehr as being his chief mentor in these early days, and indeed his influence can be heard in Harry’s first work, Refrains and Choruses for wind quintet (1957), which is dedicated to his friend. It’s interesting to note that there are several points of contact between the musical interests of Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies and Goehr from this time. Goehr says that Richard Hall was greatly interested in numbers and how they might be applied to composition. Medieval musical techniques, such as use of isorhythm and chant as a compositional devices and basis for contrapuntal invention, were of great interest to them all, but especially Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies.

I call all three of these composers “cantus firmus” composers as they all adapted the concept of creating music around a single line, albeit in different ways. As the composers matured and became more fluent, in Goehr’s music it became a twelve-tone derived theme or harmonic sequence (chaconne), in Maxwell Davies, a Gregorian chant (or a derivation) that is broken up and subjected to the treatment of a magic square, and in Birtwistle, an invented temporal process or “timeline” that he would put in motion and let play out—an algorithm. 

After the London premiere of Turangalîla-Symphonie, Messiaen became a big influence on Birtwistle as well as on Goehr, who went off to study with him at the Paris Conservatoire in 1955. Stravinsky was also an early influence on the young Birtwistle. The strophic structure and additive rhythms of Messiaen’s music and the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting blocks of music in Stravinsky were attractive to Birtwistle, who would go on incorporate some of these ideas into his music. Important outside influences on his work were classical Greek literature, science, nature, mathematics and the visual arts.

Harrison Birtwistle with cast members from the 1985 premiere of his opera, The Mask of Orpheus. Photo courtesy of the Peter Zinovieff Archive

Harry Birtwistle became a major figure in my life in my student years and young composer days in England from the 1970s through the mid-1980s. He was a friend and a mentor, and today I can trace some of the things I do as a composer directly to his influence. I met him for the first time in the late 1970s when I was Goehr’s assistant and Harry and his wife, Sheila, came to Sunday lunch at Sandy’s cottage near Cambridge.

I remember him at this first meeting as being very kind and soft spoken, having a great sense of humour, and laser focused on whatever subject we were talking about. Unlike Sandy and Max who were actual teachers to me for a time, Harry was not really a teacher as such; you didn’t go to him with your piece for an evaluation and to hear what he had to say about it. For me he was a mentor by the example of his work, and through conversation. It should be remembered that when I first knew him he was 44 years old and was the Music Director at the National Theatre and would soon compose the score for their highly lauded production of The Oresteia.

I had first been made aware of Birtwistle’s music by Thea Musgrave, my undergrad teacher at the College of Creative Studies in the University of California Santa Barbara. She mentioned his Punch and Judy in a seminar class we did with her in contemporary opera and music theatre, along with Goehr’s Triptych and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King (which I did a presentation on for the class). I heard and admired the few pieces of Goehr and Maxwell Davies that I was able to find scores and recordings of then, but it was only after I went to Cambridge to study with Goehr in 1976 that I was able to finally hear recorded, live and broadcast performances of Birtwistle’s music. And as I dug into it further, it became a revelation to me. In my youthful hearing of it, what he was doing was revolutionary in terms of his sound world, and learning how he put it together was of the greatest interest to me.

The first thing I learned from him was that time is a resource; that a composer can combine different levels of time from an infinite number of choices into a single work. This concept reminds me of an idea in the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz’s book The Labyrinth of Solitude where he talks about when we experience a work of temporal art such as music, theatre or film, not only do we perceive the way time operates in the work itself, but also how it interacts with other levels of time, such as personal, clock and geological times, and even the glacial pace by which the universe evolves, a kind of temporal counterpoint—cycles within cycles of infinitely different lengths, and so, nothing ever repeats itself exactly. Music with this kind of structure can be seen as a slice of eternity. 

I have some great memories of him. One that stands out is when in 1979 I attended a rehearsal (and later the performance) of Harry’s …agm… in the Royal Albert Hall with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and the John Alldis Choir conducted by Boulez. Harry invited me to sit next to him and follow the score during the rehearsal. It was an eye-opening experience for me (then 24 or 25) and I got an inside glimpse of how he conceived his music and how he communicated his ideas to Boulez and the performers.

Many of Birtwistle’s pieces from that time, the ones I know best and which had the greatest influence on me and which I still greatly admire, were Punch and Judy (1967), The Triumph of Time (1972), Silbury Air (1977), Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1978),  . . .agm. . . (1979), On the Sheer Threshold of Night (1980),Clarinet Quintet(1980), Secret Theatre (1984), and Earth Dances (1986). I was also very interested in his collaborations with electronic music pioneer and librettist Peter Zinovieff (another of my mentors): the fascinating electronic piece, Chronometer (1972), which contains the essence of Birtwistle’s temporal experiments; the score of the Sean Connery film, The Offence (1972); and the opera The Mask of Orpheus (1973-83), which I had seen scores of early versions of and watched take shape.  I continued to follow his work for the rest of his life at a distance, from Los Angeles in more recent years, and it continued to fascinate me, especially the big orchestral pieces like Deep Time (2016).

Despite what you might imagine from looking at his giant orchestral scores, he was never one for elaborate theories or complicated processes. His music was focused tightly on simple interactions of the fundamentals of music—time and space—creating soundscapes that were utterly idiosyncratic. He created an ecosystem for each of his pieces and let them proceed organically, utilizing the forces of nature and creating form through evolving motion. It could be hypnotic at times. Much of his best music unfolds gradually as it shapes itself into something that grows into a massive expression of everything it’s made of, and then goes on to take itself apart by disintegration—somewhat like the geological processes of the Earth which he was greatly interested in. 

One of the things that I and many other composers do that is extremely important to us and our tradition is that we continue to keep those who were our teachers, mentors and influences alive through crafting our own music with their spiritual guidance. I really feel this more strongly as I get older, and thinking about Harry today I realize how much of what I have learned from him as a composer is embraced in my own work. For this gift from him, I am truly grateful.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, born 15 July 1934, died 18 April 2022

Jack Van Zandt (b. 1954) is a Grammy-winning composer of music for concerts, film and TV, and a music educator and writer. He is based in Los Angeles and Ireland. He attended the College of Creative Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Cambridge University, and studied composition with Alexander Goehr, Thea Musgrave, Peter Maxwell Davies and Peter Racine Fricker. Recent premieres include The New Frontier: An Atomic Age Jazz Opera for soprano Stacey Fraser; Strange Loops for the Villiers String Quartet; La Nuit Étoilée: A Nocturne After Van Gogh for pianist Nadia Shpachenko and harpist Alison Bjorkedal with the Seattle Chamber Orchestra; and a work for orchestra, From th’Ethereal Skie, by the UCLA Philharmonia at the 2024 Hear Now Festival. His book with Alexander Goehr, Composing a Life: Teachers, Mentors and Models, was published by Carcanet in October 2023. His music is published by Composers Edition.