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  • Letters
  • Michael Clarke

In Memory of Jonathan Harvey (3 May 1939-4 December 2012)

Jonathan Harvey, one of the most innovative and imaginative composers of his generation, died in December 2012 at the age of 73. For several years he had been suffering from motor neuron disease. He is survived by his wife, Rosa, and his children, Anna and Dominic.

Harvey's prolific output included many works using purely traditional acoustic forces (ranging from pieces for solo instrument to operas and works for large orchestra andmultiple choirs) but also a very significant body of music exploring the potential of new technology. He regularly received major commissions from prestigious organizations such as the BBC Proms, the English National Opera, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), and the Berlin Radio Choir. There are over 80 recordings of his works on CD. Harvey also wrote extensively, both on his own music and that of others, and he published three books. To date, three books have been written by others about his music, as well numerous journal articles and book chapters.

Early influences on Harvey's music included his teachers, Erwin Stein, Hans Keller, and Milton Babbitt, as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen (he published a monograph on Stockhausen's music in 1975). Although something of these influences remained, Harvey went on to develop a very personal style, distinguished by his passion for the spiritual and his concerns with timbre and spectralism.

Harvey was always keen to explore new sounds in his works, whether through the use of extended instrumental and vocal techniques or by using electronic means. His compositional career ran parallel with the rapid advances in music technology of the past 50 years and his use of technology grew and developed as the medium evolved. Perhaps one of his greatest achievements was to work creatively with each stage of this technological evolution, always integrating the new possibilities seamlessly into his musical technique and his aesthetic purpose. Whether working with analog tape machines, computer analysis/synthesis processes, or live digital processing, his rich imagination always resulted in eloquent and profoundly musical ideas. Technology was not for him simply a coloristic effect; frequently the whole concept of a work and its structure relate to the techniques used.

Many of Harvey's most innovative electroacoustic works arose from his long-term association with IRCAM. This association began with an invitation from Pierre Boulez to become one of the first composers to work at IRCAM. This resulted in the tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980), a work now widely considered one of the classics of the computer music repertoire. The success of this piece led to further collaborations with IRCAM, leading to many significant works such as Bhakti (for the Ensemble Intercontemporain), Speakings, the Fourth String Quartet (for the Arditti Quartet) and the opera Wagner Dream.

Spirituality was central to Harvey's creative vision, as he explained in the book In Quest of Spirit (1999) based on his Ernest Bloch Lectures. Many of his works have titles or texts reflecting this, for example, Passion and Resurrection, Bhakti, and Advaya. He practiced a form of Buddhist meditation but always maintained an openness to other religious traditions. His final large-scale work was written in collaboration with the distinguished Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, whose libretto for Weltethos (Global Ethic) is based on texts taken from six different world religions. It promotes and celebrates their shared values. The work was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin Radio Choir, with additional children's choir, in 2011, and its UK premier marked the opening of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. In this work, as in another late choral work Messages (2008), Harvey's style becomes simpler, without losing any of his characteristic profundity, enabling a wider audience to discover the beauty of his musical vision.

For many years Jonathan Harvey combined his compositional work with a distinguished academic career, teaching in the UK at the Universities of Southampton and Sussex and in the United States at Stanford. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Southampton, Sussex, Bristol, Birmingham, and Huddersfield. He was much respected as a teacher and always generous with his time and energy in...


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