An Obituary by Julian Anderson
You will all be very sad to hear that the wonderful composer Jonathan
Harvey died on the evening of Tuesday 4th December, at the age of 73,
after a long struggle with Motor Neurone Disease. His family were with
him and he was receiving excellent care and nursing.
Harvey's music received until recently rather more performances in
mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Japan and the US than in the UK. In the
past 5 years or so, he was finally getting more sustained attention in
this country. As an example of the difference in his perceived status
here and abroad, I recall that in 1994 a student at the Paris
Conservatoire came up to me and timidly asked if I had ever met Jonathan
Harvey, 'the greatest composer since Messiaen.' This opinion was not
uncommon abroad in the past twenty years, where works such as 'Bhakti'
or 'Song Offerings' were studied in music schools and regarded as
seriously as the latest Boulez or Carter.
Jonathan Harvey studied composition with Benjamin Britten, Erwin Stein,
Hans Keller and Milton Babbitt. He also attended, and was much
influenced by, Karlheinz Stockhausen's composition courses at Darmstadt
in 1966-7. He was a pioneer in the field of electro-acoustic
composition, a field in which he worked more consistently than any other
concert composer in Britain. His electronic pieces ranged from Inner
Light I for 7 instruments and tape (1971), commissioned by Britten for
the Aldeburgh Festival, which was made with primitive analogue equipment
such as ring modulation and varispeed tape-recorders, right up to such
later masterpieces as 'Speakings' (2008) for orchestra and live
electronics, completed a few years ago and using the latest software
from IRCAM in Paris. Harvey was awarded the Prix de Composition de la
Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco for 'Speakings' in 2010. Sadly it
turned out to be his last purely orchestral work. Harvey's best known
electronic piece is also one of the most famous ever composed, 'Mortuos
Plango, Vivos Voco' (1980, IRCAM). It combined the recorded and
resynthesised tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral with the voice of his
son Dominic, then in Winchester Cathedral Choir. The euphonious,
celebratory result was an immediate hit internationally and has remained
a classic of this genre.
Harvey's four string quartets have quickly entered the chamber music
repertoire and have been recorded complete more than once. A prolific
composer, he was active in providing music for all genres, from
well-known solo works such as 'Curve with Plateau' for cello, to several
full scale operas, of which 'Wagner Dream' (2004) was perhaps the best
known. Everything he composed was informed by an intimate knowledge of
the potentials of the instruments, and he enjoyed many long and
successful collaborations with the many of the best performers of the
period, such as cellist Francis-Marie Uitti, conductors Pierre Boulez,
Simon Rattle and Ilan Volkov, ensembles such as the Arditti String
Quartet, the Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern, Ictus,
L'Itineraire, and many others. Harvey was a gifted cellist himself,
having played in the cello sections of the National Youth Orchestra and
the BBC Scottish Symphony, and his music remained deeply routed in
performance practice and practicality, however complex the figurations
Harvey also composed numerous much-loved pieces for the many British
cathedral choirs. Of these, 'I love the Lord' (1976) and 'The Angels'
(1992) have remained the most recorded and performed. Harvey had been a
chorister at St. Michael's Tenbury, and this aspect of his output was
one he held very dear (it was the one side of his work more neglected
abroad but much performed in the UK).
Harvey taught composition for many years at Southampton and Sussex
Universities, and also as guest in the US. He was generous and
altruistic, always interested in his colleagues' work, humble in his
opinions of his own, unpretentious, lively and endlessly inquisitive.
Whilst he held true to his own stylistic path, or perhaps because he did
so, he was enthusiastically supportive of the work of many very
different composers such as Robin Holloway, Gordon Crosse and Brian
Ferneyhough (of whom he was perhaps the earliest prominent advocate in
the UK - his 1979 article on Ferneyhough in 'The Musical Times' (see it
on JSTOR) is still one of the best on that composer). He was absolutely
uncompetitive in his attitude towards his contemporaries and students.
In this as in much else, Harvey was a model for us all.
Some of you may have experienced Harvey's music in the recent festivals
of the BBC (Total Immersion in January) and at the Royal Festival Hall
in October. The halls were gratifyingly full for these events, though
sadly the composer was already too ill to be present in person. Happily
live relays through Skype enabled him to witness these successes in his
home in Sussex.