Harrison Birtwistle: 9 Settings of Lorine Niedecker

Program Note

Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934)

Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998/2000)

Sir Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in the north of England and studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he made contact with a highly talented group of contemporaries including Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. In 1965 Birtwistle sold his clarinets to devote all his efforts to composition, and travelled to Princeton as a Harkness Fellow where he completed the opera Punch and Judy. This work, together with Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time, firmly established him as a leading voice in British music.

Birtwistle’s music has been conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst, Paul Daniel and Martyn Brabbins. He has been featured in festivals and concert series including the BBC Proms, Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Holland Festival, Lucerne Festival, Stockholm New Music, Wien Modern, Wittener Tage, the South Bank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, MiTo in Turin and Milan, and Casa da Música in Porto.

Birtwistle has received many honours, including the Grawemeyer Award in 1968 and the Siemens Prize in 1995; he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, awarded a British knighthood in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He was Henry Purcell Professor of Music at King's College, University of London and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“In 1998 several composers were asked to write short tributes in honour of Elliott Carter’s ninetieth birthday to be published in Tempo magazine. I contributed the first three of these settings of poems by Lorine Niedecker, and extended the collection to feature nine poems to a commission for the Nash Ensemble in 2000.

Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) was born and spent most of her life on Blackhawk Island on the Rock River in Wisconsin. Her poems are mostly short and their haiku-like intensity reminded me of the fragments of Sappho’s poetry that I set in my Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments, Cantata and ...agm...I was attracted to the intimate, fragile quality of the verse, which should be reflected in the performance.

I think of this sequence of vocal miniatures, starting with my offering for Carter, as being like a bunch of flowers.”

—Harrison Birtwistle