On Jonathan Harvey…

November 4th, 2016

I greatly admire the ‘Total Immersion’ days that the BBC and Barbican have put on in the past few years, usually in the dark winter months as if a good dose of high culture will cure any ailments or festive hangovers. The chance to hear a good proportion of a composer’s recent output in a ‘mini-festival’ of sorts moving between orchestral, chamber and choral concerts in the same venue is really exciting and shows a great deal of endeavour and forward-thinking from the powers that be. However, I haven’t been that excited by some of the composers featured in recent ‘Total Immersion’ days – a whole day of Tristan Murail, Unsuk Chin or (God help me) Brian Ferneyhough hasn’t really appealed, but the prospect of a day of Jonathan Harvey’s music (as will be featured next weekend) is something entirely different.

Harvey is a composer whose music has always appealed to me, not in sort of ‘take-it-to-my-heart’ kind of way, but more that my ears have been tickled by something new, something different and something original. I don’t really know half of the works he has composed, and certainly nothing in the last five years but there are certain key works from throughout his career that are as impressive and as exciting as anything I’ve heard from a British composer in the last forty years.

For those of you unfamiliar with Harvey, he was born in Warwickshire in 1939 made his way to Cambridge, Princeton and then to Paris (IRCAM) with Boulez in the early 1980s. He has written for many of the world’s leading orchestras and performers, has had numerous works recorded or broadcast, had festivals devoted to his music across the world and held prestigious academic posts both in the UK and the US. And he has an excellent moustache (well he does in the promo photos of him I have in front of me).

Some of his most well known works are his short choral pieces, and I was interested to see that the BBC Singers under David Hill will be giving an early evening concert of Harvey’s choral music as part of the day. Alongside the New London Chamber Choir pieces Forms of Emptiness and Ashes Dance Back (which will receive its London Premiere), the National Youth Choir commission How could the soul no take flight and the German commission Marahi sit two small church anthems that are probably Harvey’s most performed works – I love the Lord and Come Holy Ghost. These two works date from reasonably early in Harvey’s choral output (1976 and 1984 respectively) and represent the high point of his collaboration with Martin Neary at Winchester Cathedral. Come Holy Ghost in particular is a very successful work moulding together the ancient and the modern with plainchant and long aleatoric (free time) sections vying for attention. For my mind this work is a great example of what modern choral music should be – interesting, performable, thought-provoking and not too long. It is a bit of a shame that the BBC Singers aren’t performing his work The Angels which was commissioned for the 1994 Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge – not only is it quite beautiful and restrained, but it’s also quite creepy, which I like.

Actually the work of Jonathan Harvey’s that I most admire isn’t actually a choral or church piece, but rather the distillation of the entire cathedral tradition – his piece for quadraphonic tape (yes, I don’t know what that is either) Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980). This electronic piece is based entirely on the overtones of the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of a chorister (actually his son), some of the sound manipulations are astonishing, and amongst the usual splicing and dicing that you find in electronic music you find something quite spine-tingling and unquantifiable – the mark of a truly great composer.


To hear a recording of Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, click here.

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