Harrison Birtwistle at the ceremony

Harrison Birtwistle

A Lancashire-born composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle described as a “national treasure” was today made an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy by Edge Hill University.

He advised today’s graduates: “Be ambitious for your ideas and not for yourself.”

Birtwistle is a leading voice in British music and an international figure in modern music. He is best known for the opera Punch and Judy, a work commissioned by Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, and the works Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time.

“I’ve had a lovely day here at Edge Hill, said Birtwistle. “I’ve been honoured by several Universities but today has been one of the most memorable.”

Born to a working class family in Accrington in 1934, Birtwistle participated as a clarinettist in local amateur music events. However, after having a piece accepted for the Cheltenham Festival in 1959 he decided to devote his efforts to composing and sold his clarinets.

He travelled to Princeton as a Harkness Fellow where he completed opera Punch and Judy (1967), a piece of work commissioned by Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival.

In 1995, Birtwistle’s work Panic, an 18-minute piece for alto saxophone, jazz drum kit and small orchestra was premiered during the Last Night of the Proms, watched and listened to by an estimated world audience of 100 million people. His most recent opera, The Minotaur was first performed in 2008, 40 years after his first.

At various stages of his career, Birtwistle has been a performer and teacher, becoming musical director of the newly-established National Theatre in 1975, a post he occupied for eight years. He became a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, received a knighthood in 1988 and became Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at Kings College London in 1994, a chair he held until 2001, the year in which he became a Companion of Honour.

Recent performances at the Barbican to mark the year of his 80th birthday have drawn dedicated crowds and appreciative review, and his birthday on 15 July was marked by concerts and festivals across the globe.