Address by Martin Neary
at the Service of Thanksgiving for Jonathan Harvey
St John’s College, Cambridge
19th October, 2013
How appropriate that this inspiring Service of Thanksgiving should be being held here at St. John’s where, fifty six years ago, Jonathan Harvey’s musical voice began to flower. Beginning with Hildegard, sung so radiantly by Julia Doyle, everything in the service brings vividly to mind this deeply spiritual man, who enriched our liveswith his extraordinary gifts as composer and as human being.
The choristers and choral scholars will have experienced at first hand his originality and inspiration in the two anthems they sang so beautifully:The Annunciation, composed for the College’s Quincentenary, begins deceptively with three tonal chords, A minor, G major and F major, which eventually become submerged into each other – a typical Harvey trade-mark, for as he himself said, he loved “ambiguity, fluidity and a lack of identity”; and I love the Lord, in memory of his mother, in which the apparently opposing themes of love and death, are heard in the unrelated keys of G major and E flat minor, before magically resolving in the final cadence.
You young boys may be interested to learn that, by the time he became a chorister at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, Jonathan had already been composing for several years, and that, after hearing a particular chord in the organist’s improvisation, he knew that he would become a composer. There’s a story that he bunked off a double period of games in order to work on a new anthem, enabling him to claim that one of his earliest compositions was illegal! This is not to imply however that Jonathan disliked games. According to his wife Rosaleen, whom he met when he was an undergraduate, he was in fact rather athletic, enjoyed running and playing tennis, as well as being quite capable of climbing over North Court Gate when he was locked out - with his cello! Although he and I were virtual contemporaries at Cambridge, alas I never witnessed this feat; I was aware however of the extraordinarily gifted composer, whose increasingly atonal compositions didn’t always meet with the approval of his supervisors - which made it all the sweeter when, in due course, Jonathan was awarded a Cambridge Mus D. and became an Honorary Fellow of St John’s!
Jonathan’s spirituality clearly informed his whole life; his character was as unique and special as the music he composed. Meditating each day was crucial, as was a walk on the Downs overlooking the house in Lewes where he and Rosa lived for over 30 years, after his appointment as Professor of Music at the University of Sussex, where he was a much esteemed teacher.Whenever I met him, he seemed at peace with himself. But there were paradoxes. His modesty and the ever-present twinkle in his eye didn’t prevent his being fearless in pursuit of his artistic goal. He was a radical, constantly thought-provoking, yet never losing sight of tradition. He was a man of vision, a trail-blazer, who showed in his last year of life indomitable courage and patience as he accepted terrible suffering. During his illness, as throughout their marriage, Jonathan was lovingly supported and cared for by Rosa; likewise by his children, Anna and Dominic, whom he adored – and likewise his grandchildren. Thanks to the family, friends, neighbours, doctors, his publishers at Faber Music and his patient amanuensis, Ed Hughes, to whom he communicated his musical thoughts when no longer able to write, Jonathan was able to continue composing almost to the end.
With prestigious awards from all over the world, Jonathan was acknowledged as one of the most inventive of British composers. But he must also have been one of relatively few whose music, for a long time, was lamentably heard more abroad than it was at home. One reason was the ground-breaking idiom of many of his works, not to mention their complexity and difficulty for performers and listeners alike.
So when I encouraged the Dean and Chapter of Winchester to commission Jonathan to compose an anthem for the Enthronement of a new Bishop in 1975, I fully expected a challenge, and I wasn’t disappointed!! The Bishop-elect, John Taylor, had selected words from Little Gidding, “The Dove descending breaks the air, With flames of incandescent terror”, and Jonathan found a marvellous musical way of matching the symmetry of Eliot’s ‘pyre on pyre’ and ‘fire on fire’ by use of the tritone, the augmented interval which is exactly half an octave. In a letter after the service the Dean wrote that it had been “right to commission Jonathan, even if the new anthem had not exactly been the Duke of Wellington’s cup of tea!”
That service began an exceptional creative partnership between composer and bishop, linked by their profound spirituality. This memorably bore fruit in 1981, when John Taylor produced the church opera Passion and Resurrection, in which Jonathan consciously set out to bridge the gap between the 12th and the 20th centuries by the use of plainchant alongside his own thrilling harmonies – I think of the wonderful accompaniments to the hymns sung by the congregation, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis. The drama begins with the chanting of the Prayer of Consecration which is interrupted by Jesus (off-stage), singing “Take eat, this is my body”. This sense of ritual was close to Jonathan’s heart.
Of course it was not only at Winchester that Jonathan’s music was being performed; in the 1960s Louis Halsey had commissioned Cantata I. while in 1969 Christopher Robinson had conducted the hugely demanding (and I gather quite provocative) Cantata IV Ludus amoris at the Three Choirs Festival. I know from experience how much rehearsal time is needed to do justice to Jonathan’s creations, and it is marvellous to see the challenge being taken up so boldly and successfully by Andrew Nethsingha and the Chapel Choir.
Church music was but a fraction of Jonathan’s prodigious output. In 1969 at Princeton he had written Timepieces, one of the first-ever pieces created on a computer, after which he was in demand in electronic music studios all over the world – at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM inParis, Ccrma in Stamford, MIT, Berkeley and many others throughout Europe and Scandinavia. The range of music which poured forth from him was superbly revealed in the BBC-sponsored and aptly-named ”Total Immersion” festival at the Barbican in January last year.The programme included one of Jonathan’s most gripping works, Madonna of Winter and Spring, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and ended with a concert performance of his opera, Wagner Dream. Here’s how the Guardian critic summed up the experience: “Beneath the compelling ebb and flow, Harvey’s music has a stillness and non-specific spirituality which feed mind and spirit”.
Wagner Dream is one of two works which, for me, encapsulate Jonathan’s genius. In both he brilliantly mixed electronics with live music – is there anyone else who has been so at ease and so imaginative with the two mediums in harness? – whilst Wagner’s fascination with Buddhism found in him a true kindred spirit.
My other favourite is the remarkable Mortuos plango, Vivos Voco about which I remember Jonathan saying that “music shows us how the world is changing – how a bell can turn into a boy’s voice” - which is exactly what happens when his son, Dominic’s, voice is transformed electronically, alongside the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral. It was an overnight sensation; in the words of the Independent critic:“here was the purest beauty, the greatest simplicity, darting flames of bell and bell-like boy treble".
Following Jonathan’s death, there have been many more glowing tributes, and I would like to quote from three of them:
First, from Jean-Luc Plouvier, director of the Brussels-based Ictus Ensemble:
If Jonathan Harvey has not always been a prophet in his own country, he will however live in the memory of all our musicians as the most exemplary and most delicious English figure imaginable, who at first glance aroused respect and attachment.
The second was written by his friend and fellow composer, Julian Anderson:
The truth is Harvey’s output is quite unlike any other and it is perhaps its very diversity which makes it unique, and uniquely useful to a range of publics and communities, a diversity achieved unlike so many others without compromise, and which one feels Britten (an early mentor) would certainly have appreciated.
The gentle, soft-spoken yet fiercely intellectual Harvey was a remarkable synthesis: steeped in the traditions and spirituality of English cathedral music, yet trained in the avant-garde world of Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM laboratory in Paris. The music he wrote was a wonderful hybrid, using electronics alongside acoustic instruments and choirs to create visionary sound worlds…
It’s an indication of the international esteem in which he was held that Jonathan's manuscripts are now housed at the Sacher Foundation in Switzerland, alongside those of Stravinsky, Bartok, Ligeti and other great 20th-century composers. Rosa says it’s a good job there’s plenty of space there because, when Anna and Dominic were assembling the scores, they discovered two extra cupboards-full. “No wonder”, she says, “he never had time to do the washing up!”
Some composers’ music tends to be ignored in the years following their deaths, but I firmly suggest that Jonathan’s will not suffer that fate. So let us give thanks for all that he created, and rejoice that his marvellous music is becoming increasingly performed and appreciated in concert halls and churches all over the world.
Throughout his life this most profound yet unassuming and kind-hearted man searched out musical tunes and sounds to transport us beyond ourselves, and to give us a glimpse into John Donne’s world, where there is “no noise nor silence but one equal music”.
May he rest in peace.