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Harrison Birtwistle Timeline

A year by year alignment of Birtwistle's life and works
Biographical information by Jonathan Cross

The chronological list of works indicates the publisher of each work. For those published by Boosey & Hawkes, links are provided to useful information including scorings, durations and repertoire notes.


Born 15 July in Accrington, England. Only child of Lancashire farmers. Grows up on small holding on edge of the town.


His mother buys him a clarinet and he has lessons with leader of the Accrington military band, which he eventually joins.



Begins composing. Few early works survive, with exception of Oockooing Bird for piano (c.1950).


Oockooing Bird for piano ms

Wins scholarship as clarinettist to Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), where he studies with Frederick Thurston (clarinet) and Richard Hall (composition). Fellow students include the composers Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies, the trumpeter Elgar Howarth and the pianist John Ogdon.


With fellow Manchester students founds the New Music Manchester group as a vehicle for exploring important twentieth-century works as well as for playing their own music.


Hears Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie in London, conducted by Walter Goehr – "an absolute magical moment".


Undertakes national service (1955–57) as a clarinettist with band of the Royal Artillery.


Only London concert by New Music Manchester group (9 January), organised by William Glock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, including works by Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Lutyens and Hall, but not Birtwistle, who appears only as clarinettist.


Attends a London concert (6 May) where he first hears Boluez’s Le marteau sans maître alongside Webern’s Concerto op.24 and Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse – a formative experience. Undertakes postgraduate clarinet studies (1957–58) with Reginald Kell at Royal Academy of Music, London, followed by a short period playing with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Completes his ‘Opus 1’, Refrains and Choruses, on New Year’s Eve.


Refrains and Choruses for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon UE

Signed up to be published by Universal Edition, with whom he remains until 1994. Marries Sheila Duff. Undertakes variety of non-musical jobs.


Three Sonatas for Nine Instruments ww

Refrains and Choruses selected by Society for the Promotion of New Music and premiered at the Cheltenham Festival by the Portia Wind Ensemble. Birth of first son, Adam.


Monody for Corpus Christi for soprano, flute, horn and violin UE

Three Sonatas for Nine Instruments chosen by SPNM for performance at Aldeburgh Festival, but withdrawn after first rehearsal. Score unpublished, but now housed at Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Switzerland. John Ogdon premieres Précis for solo piano at Dartington Summer School. During this period teaches at three Dorset preparatory schools: Claysmore School and Knighton House (Blandford), and Port Regis (Shaftesbury).


Précis for solo piano UE

Chorales for orchestra (1960-63) UE


Monody for Corpus Christi selected to represent Britain at ISCM Festival.


The World is Discovered for 12 players UE

Appointed Director of Music at Cranborne Chase Girls School, Wardour Castle, Dorset (1962–65).


Pupils of Knighton House and Port Regis Schools give premiere of Music for Sleep, commissioned by Musical Times and Music in Education. His second son, Silas, is born.


Narration: A Description of the Passing of a Year for chorus UE

Music for Sleep for children's voices, piano and percussion UE

Co-founds (with Goehr and Maxwell Davies) the Wardour Castle Summer School, with Michael Tippett as President. Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments premiered at Cheltenham Festival.


Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments for soprano and chamber ensemble (1962/64) UE

Three Movements with Fanfares for chamber orchestra UE


Tragoedia premiered at second (and last) Wardour Castle Summer School to great critical acclaim. His third son, Toby, is born.


Carmen Paschale motet for chorus (SATB) and obbligato organ (1964-65) UE

Ring a Dumb Carillon a 'dramatic scena' for soprano, clarinet and percussion (1964-65) UE


Tragoedia for wind quintet, harp and string quartet UE

Verses for clarinet and piano UE


The Visions of Francesco Petrarca for baritone, mime ensemble, chamber ensemble and school orchestra (1965-66) ww

Wins a Harkness Fellowship for two years’ study in the USA. Becomes Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, where he completes the composition of Punch and Judy.


The Mark of the Goat a 'dramatic cantata' for actors, singers, two choruses and instruments UE

Punch and Judy a 'tragical comedy or comical tragedy' in one act (1966-67) UE

Completes his American studies at University of Colorado at Boulder. Co-founds Pierrot Players with Maxwell Davies and Stephen Pruslin. Their first concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, includes premiere of Monodrama (later withdrawn) to a libretto by Pruslin and dedicated to Maxwell Davies.


Chorale from a Toy Shop for 5 players (various realizations) UE


Monodrama for soprano, speaker and chamber ensemble ww

Three Lessons in a Frame for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion ww

Punch and Judy, to a libretto by Pruslin, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in the presence of Benjamin Britten. Nomos commissioned by the BBC Proms and premiered by Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.


Nomos for 4 amplified wind instruments and orchestra (1967-68) UE

Four Interludes for a Tragedy for basset clarinet and tape UE


Verses for Ensembles for 5 woodwind, 5 brass and 3 percussion (1968-69)UE

Linoi for clarinet and piano; or clarinet, piano, tape and dancer; or clarinet, piano and cello (1968-69) UE

Down by the Greenwood Side, to a text by Michael Nyman, premiered at the Brighton Festival. Peter Zinovieff collaborates for first time, on tape parts for Linoi, Four Interludes for a Tragedy and Medusa.


Down by the Greenwood Side a 'dramatic pastroal' in one act (1968-69) UE

Some Petals from my Twickenham Herbarium for piccolo, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and glockenspiel UE



Cantata for soprano and chamber ensemble UE

UT Heremita Solus (after Ockeghem) for chamber ensemble UE


Hoquetus David (after Machaut) for chamber ensemble UE

Eight Lessons for Keyborads ms


Medusa for chamber ensemble (1969-70) UE

What was to become The Mask of Orpheus, to a text by Peter Zinovieff, is commissioned by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The commission later passes to both London Weekend Television and Glyndebourne before it lapses, only to be renewed by English National Opera in early 1980s. The Pierrot Players disband (and become the Fires of London).


Nenia: the Death of Orpheus a 'dramatic scene' for soprano, 3 bass clarinets/clarinet, piano/prepared piano and crotales UE

Signals for clarinet and tape ms


Dinah and Nick's Love Song for 2 melody instruments and harp UE

Prologue for tenor and chamber ensemble UE


Meridian for mezzo-soprano, 6 soprano voices, horn, cello and 11 players (1970-71) UE

An Imaginary Landscape, a BBC commission, is premiered by Pierre Boulez and BBC Symphony Orchestra at ISCM Festival in London.


An Imaginary Landscape for brass, 8 double basses and percussion UE

Tombeau in memoriam Igor Stravinsky for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet UE


Sad Song a modal piano piece (c.1971) ms

The Fields of Sorrow for 2 sopranos, chorus and 16 players (1971-72) UE


Chronometer for 2 x 4-track tape (realized by Peter Zinovieff) (1971-72) UE


The Triumph of Time premiered in London by Lawrence Foster and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.


The Triumph of Time for orchestra (1971-72) UE

Epilogue for baritone, horn, 4 trombones, 6 tam-tams UE


La Plage: Eight Arias of Remembrance for soprano, 3 clarinets, piano and marimba UE

Appointed Cornell Visiting Professor of Music at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Begins composition of The Mask of Orpheus, Acts 1 & 2 (1973-76). Chronometer, his only piece exclusively for tape, prepared with Zinovieff, is premiered in London. Writes his only film score to Sydney Lumet’s The Offence.


Grimethorpe Aria for brass band UE

Chanson de geste for amplified sustaining instrument and tape ww

At invitation of Morton Feldman appointed Visiting Slee Professor at State University of New York at Buffalo (1974-75).


Appointed Music Director, National Theatre, London. Scores include Hamlet (1975), Tamburlaine (1976) and Volpone (1977). Also works on other productions in collaboration with composer Dominic Muldowney, including Julius Caesar (1977), The Cherry Orchard (1978) and As You Like It (1979).


Five Chorale Preludes (after J.S. Bach) for soprano, clarinet, basset horn and bass clarinet UE


Melencolia I for solo clarinet, harp and 2 string orchestras UE

For O, for O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot a 'ceremony' for 6 percussionists UE

Bow Down, to a text by Yorkshire poet Tony Harrison, is premiered at National Theatre.


Bow Down improvised music theatre for 5 actors and 4 musicians UE

Silbury Air for 15 players UE


Pulse Field (Frames, Pulses and Interruptions) ballet for 6 dancers and 9 players UE

Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum for 14 or 31 players (1977-78) UE


...agm... for 16 voices and 3 instrumental ensembles (1978-79) UE


Choral Fragments from ...agm... for 16 voices ww

untitled work for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon ms


Mercure Poses Plastiques (after Satie's ballet) for chamber orchestra UE

On the Sheer Threshold of the Night for soprano, counter-tenor, tenor, bass and chorus of 12 voices UE


Clarinet Quintet for clarinet and string quartet UE

Writes highly acclaimed music for Peter Hall’s production of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy at National Theatre in a new translation by Tony Harrison. Featured composer at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Resumes composition of The Mask of Orpheus, Acts 2 & 3 (1981-84).


Pulse Sampler for oboe and claves UE

Becomes Associate Director, National Theatre, and moves to Lunegarde in the Lot region of France. Begins work at IRCAM, Paris, with composer Barry Anderson on the electronic music components for The Mask of Orpheus.


Duets for Storab for 2 flutes UE

Deowa for soprano and clarinet UE composer/1984MaskofOrph.jpg


London Sinfonietta premieres Secret Theatre at his fiftieth birthday concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Invited to Japan for a major retrospective of his music in Tokyo. First full-length study of his music published by Michael Hall (Harrison Birtwistle, Robson Books, London).


The Mask of Orpheus an opera in 3 acts (1973-75/1981-84) UE

Tan Tan Tethera a 'mechanical pastoral' in one act UE


Still Movement for 13 solo strings UE

Secret Theatre for 14 players UE composer/1984SecretTheatre.jpg


Songs by Myself for soprano and chamber ensemble UE

Berceuse de Jeanne for piano UE


Words Overheard for soprano and chamber orchestra UE

Directs Summerscope Festival at London’s South Bank Centre under the title ‘Harrison Birtwistle: His Fancies, His Toys, His Dreams’.


Earth Dances for orchestra (1985-86) UE


Premiere of The Mask of Orpheus by English National Opera at London Coliseum. Wins prestigious Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville. Yan Tan Tethera premiered by Opera Factory/London Sinfonitta at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Earth Dances, another BBC commission, is premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Eötvös – ‘a desolate, disturbing rite of spring for this decade’ (Nicholas Kenyon). Made Chevalier des arts et des lettres by French government and Honorary Fellow of Royal Academy of Music.


Endless Parade for solo trumpet, vibraphone and string orchestra (1986-87) UE

Hector's Dawn for piano UE


Fanfare of Will for brass ensemble UE

Les Hoquets du Gardien de la Lune (after Machaut) for orchestra ms

The Mask of Orpheus wins the Evening Standard Award for Opera. Endless Parade is premiered by trumpeter Håken Hardenberger and the Collegium Musicum of Zürich. The work was commissioned and conducted by Paul Sacher and this association led in 1989 to the Paul Sacher Stiftung’s acquisition of all the manuscript material in Birtwistle’s possession and an ongoing archival relationship.


Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Major BBC ‘Endless Parade’ Birtwistle Festival at the Barbican Centre, London including UK premiere of his trumpet concerto Endless Parade.


Four Songs of Autumn for soprano and string quartet UE

An die Musik for soprano and 10 players UE


Machaut à ma manière (after Machaut) for orchestra UE

Discovers poetry of Paul Celan in translation and begins 9 Settings of Celan (1989–96).


Salford Toccata for brass band UE

The Wine merchant Robin of Mere for male voice and piano ms


Ritual Fragment for 14 players UE


Gawain premiered at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Wins Evening Standard Award for Opera a second time. Featured composer at Wien Modern festival.


Gawain an opera in 2 acts (1990-91 rev.1994) UE

Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski for soprano and 13 players UE


Gawain's Journey for orchestra (selected and compiled in collaboration with Elgar Howarth) UE


An Interrupted Endless Melody 

for oboe and piano BH

Antiphonies premiered in Paris by Philharmonia Orchestra and Joanna MacGregor (piano), conducted by Boulez. Appointed to Board of the South Bank Centre, London (1992-2002).


Antiphonies for solo piano and orchestra UE

Five Distances for Five Instruments for wind quintet UE

Appointed Composer-in-Residence to London Philharmonic Orchestra.


The Second Mrs Kong an opera in 2 acts (1993-94) UE

Appointed first Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College, London (1994–2002). Gawain revived at the Royal Opera House in revised version, followed by a recording (Collins Classics 1996). The Second Mrs Kong premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera and subsequently revived at Glyndebourne Festival (1995), with further new productions (in German) in Heidelberg and Vienna. Tour of Earth Dances by Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi includes USA, Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms, followed by a recording (Decca 1996).

The Cry of Anubis 

for tuba and orchestra BH


Fanfare for Glyndebourne for brass ensemble and timpani ms

Awarded the Ernst von Siemens Foundation Prize. Tribute concert of Secret Theatre and Endless Parade given in Munich. Moves to Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers. Panic premiered at the Last Night of the Proms to controversial critical acclaim.

Hoquetus Petrus 

for two flutes and piccolo trumpet BH


for alto saxophone, jazz drummer, wind, brass and percussion BH


Moves from France to new permanent home in Mere, Wiltshire. Pulse Shadows premiered in Witten, Germany. South Bank Centre’s ‘Secret Theatres’ Festival includes UK premiere of Pulse Shadows and a new semi-staged production of The Mask of Orpheus, followed by a recording (NMC 1997). Mitsuko Uchida is soloist in US premiere of Antiphonies with Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boulez.

9 Settings of Celan 

for soprano and ensemble (1989-96) BH/UE

Pulse Shadows 

for soprano, string quartet and ensemble BH/UE

9 Movements for String Quartet 

(1991-96) BH/UE

Slow Frieze 

for piano and ensemble BH

Bach Measures 

for chamber orchestra or ensemble BH


Appointed Director of Composition at Royal Academy of Music, London.


for orchestra BH

Harrison's Clocks 

for piano solo (1997-98) BH

Exody premiered in Chicago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, followed by its European premiere at the BBC Proms. Simon Rattle conducts The Triumph of Time with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in UK and at Konzerthaus in Vienna. Made Fellow of King’s College, London.

Placid Mobile 

for 36 muted trumpets BH

The Silk House Tattoo 

for two trumpets and 3 side drums BH

Rattle conducts Earth Dances with CBSO in UK and Vienna

The Last Supper 

Dramatic tableaux for 14 soloists, small female chorus and chamber orchestra (1998-99) BH


Love Cries for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra (compiled from The Second Mrs Kong by Michael Berkeley) (1994/99) UE

Three Latin Motets 

for 18-part mixed choir a cappella BH

The Woman and the Hare 

for soprano, reciter and ensmeble BH

Sonance Severance 2000 

Fanfare for orchestra BH

Sonance 2000 

for brass ensemble BH

The Last Supper premiered at the Staatsoper, Berlin, conducted by Barenboim. The production travels to Glyndebourne Touring Opera (conducted by Elgar Howarth) in the autumn and Glyndebourne Festival the following summer.

9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker 

 for soprano and cello (1998/2000) BH

17 Tate Riffs 

for ensemble BH

The Axe Manual 

for piano and percussion BH

Ostinato with Melody 

for solo piano BH

Betty Freeman: Her Tango 

for solo piano BH

The Sadness of Komachi 

for tenor and prepared piano BH

Boulez tours Earth Dances with Ensemble Modern Orchestra, opening three major festivals: musica viva in Munich, Wien Modern, and European Music Month in Basel. Made Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II. Chairholder in Composition at University of Alabama, USA (2001/02).

Saraband: The King's Farewell 

for solo piano BH


for brass and percussion BH

Tenebrae David 

for brass ensemble BH

The Shadow of Night 

for orchestra BH


Returns to the Royal National Theatre to provide music for Sir Peter Hall’s production of Euripides’ Bacchai. The Shadow of Night, a Cleveland Orchestra commission, is premiered under Dohnányi in Cleveland, with a subsequent performance at Carnegie Hall, New York. Teldec recording of Pulse Shadows wins Gramophone Award for Contemporary Music.


Music to the play by Euripides BH

Theseus Game 

for large ensemble with 2 conductors BH

Theseus Game premiered by Ensemble Modern at RUHRtriennale and by London Sinfonietta at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

The Ring Dance of the Nazarene 

for solo tenor, chorus and ensemble BH

The Gleam 

Christmas Carol for SATB choir BH

The Io Passion 

chamber opera for actors/singers and 5 instrumentalists BH

70th birthday events include performances of The Io Passion at Aldeburgh Festival, Almeida Opera and Bregenz Festival, and features at Lucerne Festival and South Bank Centre in London. The Shadow of Night wins RPS Award, and a companion work Night's Black Bird is premiered by Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst in Lucerne. Future commissions include new works for Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

Night's Black Bird 

for orchestra BH

26 Orpheus Elegies 

for oboe, harp and voice (2003-04) BH

Three Brendel Settings 

for baritone and orchestra (2000/04) BH

Today Too 

for tenor, flute and guitar BH

Three Arias 

(Bach) for soprano, countertenor and ensemble (2003-04) BH

BH=Boosey & Hawkes
UE=Universal Edition
BH/UE=constituent movements published by either Boosey & Hawkes or Universal Edition. The complete works are available on hire/sale from Boosey & Hawkes
ms=unpublished manuscript
ww=work withdrawn

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