The time: 1957

The place: the Royal Academy of Music,


The man: Sir Harrison Birtwistle, composer

"I'll tell you something about being a composer and having the sort of education where creativity didn't belong. In art lessons the teacher would tell us to divide the paper up into squares and then fill them in with certain colours. Only there were some colours, red and yellow for instance, that weren't allowed to go next to each other, and nobody ever told me why. We were also told to do a silhouette of a town by putting a wash of blue then a wash of yellow, then a wash of red, and then you inked the rest in, and every single person in the class did the same thing. There was a sense of frustration there, no question of knowing what creativity was, or that it even existed. But when you are a kid you think that's the way the world is.

I had a chest of music I'd written from the age of nine, but that was a private world of writing that no one was interested in. Music was something that composers in the past did; it was a mysterious thing and slightly holy in a way, something you don't tamper with. It took me a long time to realise that I could continue doing this myself, that maybe this was something that I could really develop and make into something quite important, for me.

I was brought up to be a musician, but the thing about being a performer is that creativity never comes into it. Performing is something that can be taught. The people who play in an orchestra are middlemen. I wouldn't use the word "mere" performers, but it's not the same relationship with the material - theirs is an interpretive thing, and for me, whatever I've done, there's always been this creative aspect.

But I come from what used to be called a working-class background, and working-class backgrounds are all concerned with guilt and how you are going to earn your living. So I had the clarinet; that had been given to me, and that was my career. I wasn't the least bit interested in it, I wasn't good enough at it - I would have been a fairly reasonable second- rate orchestral player, I reckon. But I wasn't in a position to say "I want to be a composer" when I became a music student, because you couldn't earn your living doing that; it wasn't what people did.

Consequently, when I went to music school there was a real problem. I felt very much at odds because when I was writing music I was thinking maybe I should be practising, and when I was practising I thought there were more interesting things to do. I closed in on myself so far as my composition was concerned. My student persona was of a rather irresponsible wind player - I just don't think I was a very good student. My heart wasn't in playing the clarinet, and I had also decided that, in a sense, my student life was a waste of time. I was neither one thing nor the other; I hadn't made the big decision, and I didn't really write any music for five years.

But that period when I wasn't writing wasn't barren. I didn't have writer's block. It was a conscious decision not to do it. I was trying to find the courage not to play the clarinet. I don't think I was scared; I'm not sure what it was. I felt that the time wasn't right; I was biding my time.

The full story is that I'd won a four-year open music scholarship when I left school, and I did three years of that in Manchester, then I did two years' National Service in the Army, and when I came out I had a year left so I went to London, to the Royal Academy. And it was there that I met Alan Hacker, a wonderful clarinet player and a natural musician, and I heard him play the Clarinet Quintet of Mozart, and at last I realised that I would never be a clarinettist. He played like an angel. I'd heard some fairly dashing clarinettists in my life, but Alan was so brilliant, I knew I would never be within light years of that. It was a watershed. I sold my clarinets. I was doing a bit of clarinet teaching once a week at a girls' school, and I sold them to a pupil.

God, I tell you, it was a permanent release in my life. I was completely relieved. It's quite something that sometimes I feel happy and I don't know what it is and then I think, I know what it is; I don't play the clarinet any more. I felt I had cast off a lot of things that needed to be cast off; there was this feeling of being welded to the clarinet, that it was going to be my living, but I'd got rid of it, and it was a terribly liberating thing. And as one thing goes out of focus, another comes into focus, and in this case it was the possibility of being a composer, the confidence of thinking I had the wherewithal.

It was getting towards the end of that year, and at the same time I wrote a piece of music off the top of my head called "Refrains and Choruses", the first piece of music I'd written since being a schoolboy. In fact it was considered by the Royal Academy to be unplayable, even with a conductor, so I sent it to the Society for the Promotion of New Music, which had a concert at the Cheltenham Festival, and it was performed there and at the Wigmore Hall in London. I got a publisher through it and it was recorded by the Schoenberg Quintet, one of the most famous wind quintets going at the time - I remember getting this recording that had "Birtwistle and Schoenberg" on, because that was the order of the music on the record ...

Many years later I went back to the Royal Academy to do a seminar there and they played this piece for me, and it was played by students without any trouble at all, no conductor. I felt that the world had progressed in some ways. But the great thing about that piece was that it encouraged me to write the next piece, and I wrote another piece, and I've never stopped.