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Harrison Birtwistle, an influential English composer, has died at age 87

English composer Harrison Birtwistle, seen in 2002, has died, his publisher confirmed on Monday.
Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
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Boosey & Hawkes
English composer Harrison Birtwistle, seen in 2002, has died, his publisher confirmed on Monday.

Updated April 18, 2022 at 3:19 PM ET

Harrison Birtwistle, an English composer famed for his rigorous artistic vision, sonic audacity and deeply theatrical expression has died at age 87.

His death was confirmed Monday by his longtime publisher Boosey & Hawkes. A spokesperson for the company said Birtwistle had suffered a stroke last year.

Born in the northern English town of Accrington in 1934, Birtwistle initially trained to be a clarinetist. He studied both clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he met fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr; along with pianist John Ogdon and conductor and trumpeter Elgar Howarth, they became known as the Manchester School.

By 1965, Birtwistle had earned a fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey, and there he completed his first opera, Punch and Judy. Birtwistle's sonic brashness was a signature even then: when the opera debuted in 1968 at the U.K.'s Aldeburgh Festival, the festival's cofounders, composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, removed themselves from the performance midway through.

Opera was to become a hallmark of Birtwistle's career: his epically scaled, four hour-long opera The Mask of Orpheus, which calls for masked singers and mimes as well as electronics, took about a decade to complete, and it debuted at the English National Opera in 1986. The following year, he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville for that work.

The Grawemeyer was the first of many significant honors Birtwistle received: he was named a chevalier in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, given a British knighthood in 1988, and made a Companion of Honour in the U.K. in 2001. Over the course of his career, Birtwistle taught at both King's College, London and the Royal Academy of Music.

In 1995, his raucous piece Panic for alto saxophone, jazz drum kit, woodwinds, brass and percussion debuted at the famed — and normally far more buttoned-up — BBC Last Night of the Proms in London with conductor Andrew Davis. The worldwide audience for that broadcast was some 100 million. It was the first piece of contemporary music ever programmed for the occasion, which normally revels in jolly performances of British patriotic standards. (The BBC switchboards were reportedly jammed with complaints.)

Birtwistle's work was widely championed by many notable conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Christoph von Dohnányi and Oliver Knussen, as well as soloists like violinist Christian Tetzlaff (who premiered his Violin Concerto in 2011) and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who premiered his Responses for piano and orchestra in 2014.

The U.K.'s National Portrait Gallery includes seven images of Birtwistle, including works made by David Hockney, Lord Snowdon and painter Adam Birtwistle, the composer's son.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.