Jonathan Harvey’s Death of Light/Light of Death, inspired by the visceral Isenheim altarpiece, will appear at Vermont’s Yellow Barn Summer Festival on 29 July. The 17-minute work, scored for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and harp, will be performed by Daniel Bates, Curtis Macomber, Rosemary Nelis, Jean-Michel Fonteneau and Charles Overton.

The 17-minute piece is a musical response to Matthias Grünewald’s extraordinary painting of the crucifixion. “The unflinching sense of catastrophe that hangs over this picture has given it a special appeal to the sensibilities of our own time”, Harvey noted. The 1998 premiere with Ensemble intercontemporain took place in sight of the painting itself on Good Friday at the Chapelle du Musée d'Unterlinden in Colmar. 

The five parts of Death of Light/Light of Death meditate on different figures in the scene – the crucified Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, John the Apostle, and John the Baptist. Whilst most of these figures are in differing states of distress, the last looks on at the scene impassively yet imposingly – a figure from the world of the dead. For Harvey he is a reminder that it is in death itself that ultimate meaning can be discovered – the light revealed even as another is extinguished.

Harvey’s music for John the Baptist has a grave, hieratic character – the harpist solemnly strikes a tam-tam – that suggests the penetration of this timeless prophetic mystery. Harvey’s other figures are drawn with equal immediacy and intensity. Raw oboe multiphonics and vertiginous string figures evoke the broken body of Jesus on the cross at the beginning of the piece. The fainting Virgin Mary – “wiped out”, Harvey notes – is eerily still.

The Riot Ensemble performed the piece recently in the UK on 3 May at Nottingham Trent University. The work has been recorded by both Ensemble intercontemporain and Ictus. It has received over 80 performances internationally from groups including the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Composers Ensemble, Asko|Schönberg, and the New European Ensemble.