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

Julian Anderson
Friday 07 December 2012 21:17
Collaborator: Harvey, centre, with the conductors Ilan Volkov, left, and Stefan Solyom
Collaborator: Harvey, centre, with the conductors Ilan Volkov, left, and Stefan Solyom

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.

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