Professor Jonathan Harvey: Composer whose work spanned electronic and church music

He was a gifted cellist, and his work remained rooted in the practicalities of performance

Jonathan Harvey was one of the UK's leading composers of music in all genres, as happy to be sung in a cathedral evensong as to be performed at Pierre Boulez's electro-acoustic research institute, IRCAM in Paris. He was impossible to pigeonhole. 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 1966-67.

Harvey, though a generation younger than Stockhausen, became his equal as a pioneer in the genre of electro-acoustic composition, in which he worked more consistently than any other concert composer in Britain. His electronic pieces ranged from Inner Light 1 for seven instruments and tape (1973), dedicated to Britten for his 60th birthday and made with primitive analogue equipment such as ring modulation and varispeed tape-recorders, right up to Speakings (2008) for orchestra and live electronics, using the latest software from IRCAM.

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 major orchestral work. His best-known electronic piece is also one of the most famous ever composed, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980). It combined the recorded and resynthesised tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral with the voice of his son Dominic, then in the Cathedral Choir. The euphonious, celebratory result was a hit internationally and has remained a classic of this genre. Harvey composed some 10 electronic pieces at IRCAM over 30 years, more than any other composer including Boulez himself, and his work there constitutes the backbone of recent electronic repertoire.

Harvey's four string quartets quickly entered the repertoire. He provided music for all genres, from solo works such as Curve with Plateaux for cello, to several operas, of which Wagner Dream (2004) was perhaps the best known. Everything he composed was informed by knowledge of the potentials of instruments, and he collaborated with many of the best performers of the period, such as the cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, conductors Pierre Boulez, Sir Simon Rattle and Ilan Volkov, and ensembles including the Arditti String Quartet, the Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Modern, Ictus and L'Itinéraire.

Harvey was a gifted cellist, having played in the National Youth Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony, and his music remained rooted in performance practice and practicality. He also composed numerous much-loved pieces for British cathedral choirs. Of these, I Love the Lord (1976) and The Angels (1992) remain 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 dear. Many of his anthems are in the working repertoire of cathedrals throughout Britain.

Otherwise, Harvey's reputation in the UK, while always solid, fluctuated somewhat. Since the mid-1970s he was respected as an innovative and fluent composer who received commissions from most of the major performing groups and concert series such as the BBC orchestras, the Proms, the Nash Ensemble, the CBSO, ENO and many others. Yet there are still British orchestras that have never played his music, and some UK commentators could not quite take Harvey's open commitment to mysticism seriously. Others found his music too eclectic, feeling that at times he perhaps composed too rapidly and was open to too diverse influences, whether from Stockhausen, Boulez or from his first mentor, Benjamin Britten.

Harvey was aware of these criticisms but felt sure that he was pulling the various aspects of his creative interests together at a deep level of coherence – "Well, certainly in my better pieces I hope I do!" he would add with characteristic modesty. There were periods when a reserve in his UK reception was noticeable, made more pointed by the warmth with which much of his music was received in mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Japan and Canada. There it was routine for works such as Song Offerings or Bhakti to be studied as seriously as Boulez or Carter. But Europe showed little understanding of his cathedral repertoire, and perhaps put him too readily into the slot of "leading electro-acoustic composer".

Harvey's output is quite unlike any other – and perhaps its very diversity makes it unique, and uniquely useful to a range of publics and communities. Furthermore, it is a diversity which was achieved without compromise, an oeuvre which one feels Britten would have appreciated. In recent years the UK appreciation for the whole range of Harvey's works has been strong.

Harvey taught composition at Southampton and Sussex Universities, and also as a guest in the US. He was generous and altruistic, interested in his colleagues' work, humble in his opinions of his own, unpretentious, lively and endlessly inquisitive.

Perhaps because he was sure of what he wanted to do, Harvey was supportive of the work of many UK composers, such as Robin Holloway, Gordon Crosse and Brian Ferneyhough (of whom he was perhaps the earliest prominent advocate in the UK). He was uncompetitive towards his contemporaries and students – a model of how composers should behave.

Harvey's music was celebrated in several recent festivals devoted to his output, such as the BBC's Total Immersion in January, and a more recent weekend at the Royal Festival Hall in October. The halls were full, though the composer was too ill to be present. Skype relays enabled him to witness these successes at home in Sussex.

In recent years, Harvey had coped bravely with Motor Neurone Disease. He continued composing, using some manual assistance as first writing and then typing became impossible. He also retained his sense of humour, remarking to an interviewer a few weeks ago that one his last works was called "80 Breaths for Tokyo", but all he needed now was just one long breath.

Jonathan Dean Harvey, composer and teacher: born Sutton Coldfield 3 May 1939; married 1960 Rosa Barry (one son, one daughter); died Lewes 4 December 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
14 best coat hooks

Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?