Jonathan Harvey Listening Spree

When I came to Cincinnati after my spring semester of teaching ended, I had two goals: to compose lots of music, and to make good use of the music library at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (where my wife is currently doing doctoral studies in musicology.) I had a few composers on my listening/study list, and planned on adding more. My list included composers like Rihm and Dutilleux whose music I knew but wanted to study further and in greater depth. (The first time I heard Dutilleux’s violin concerto L’Arbre des songes, I was so amazed by it that I ordered the score immediately. Rihm’s Jagden und Formen had a similar effect on me.)

Then there were composers on my list whose music I was not very familiar at all. Perhaps I had heard a couple works by each composer, but couldn’t begin to tell you about his or her style. Or perhaps I had never heard anything by them.

Jonathan Harvey was a composer near the top of my list. Somehow, I managed to get through my graduate studies without sitting down with a score by Jonathan Harvey. (Perhaps it’s because the two graduate school schools I attended have a grand total of 2 CDs featuring Harvey’s music in their combined catalogues.) So I began searching the CCM online catalogue for a score and recording of a recent Harvey work. What I found first was his Tranquil Abiding from 1998 scored for full, but small, orchestra (2222-2200-perc(1)-strings). What I heard was the best thing I had come across by a composer unfamiliar to me in a long time! (One of those wonderful experiences that come all too rarely!)

The backbone of Tranquil Abiding is an incessant breathing of the orchestra: an inhaling crescendo on a held note followed by an exhaling decrescendo at a note one step below the inhalation. The breathing is predominantly featured in the strings, and while the winds sometimes participate in the long-notes of the breathing, their primary role is to provide more extroverted florid melodies, at times resembling birdsong, that activate the surface texture. One would think that such a simple idea cannot be sustained for nearly 15 minutes, but Harvey’s brilliant orchestration and his continual varying of the orchestra’s breathing and overall texture does the trick.

Here is an excerpt from the opening minutes of the pieces—Strings breathing, Winds beginning to emerge:

(BBC Scottish SO/Ilan Volkov, cond./NMC label)

Here is one of several climaxes—all forces now participating in the breathing. (I love the color of the muted trumpets!):

(BBC Scottish SO/Ilan Volkov, cond./NMC label)

What struck me about the piece was the way in which the orchestra behaves as an organism. Even when the winds take on more independent, extroverted lines, they are usually connected with the other winds in some way. I am also drawn personally to his angular melodic writing, a feature that I think is akin to my own melodic fingerprint. He uses rhythms that are often associated with the more austere and abstract composers of his generation. Yet there is, somehow, a certain naturalness to Harvey’s angular melodies and rhythmic complexity. This is human music that truly does “breathe.”

After hearing Tranquil Abiding, I returned to the CCM catalogue to search for more Harvey scores. So over the past weeks, I have listened to 14 works by Jonathan Harvey with score in hand. The pieces ranged date-wise from 1969 (Images after Yeats for solo piano) to 1998. They ranged duration-wise from 24 seconds (Haiku for solo piano) to 20 minutes. They ranged in forces from solo piano to a cappella choir to large orchestra with two conductors (Timepieces from 1987).

  • 1998—Tranquil Abiding (full but small orchestra)
  • 1997—Haiku (solo piano)
  • 1995—Ff (solo piano)
  • 1995—Missa brevis (a cappella choir)
  • 1995—String Quartet No.3
  • 1995—Dum transisset sabbatum (a cappella choir)
  • 1994—Angels (a cappella choir)
  • 1990—Cello Concerto
  • 1989—Sketches (solo cello)
  • 1987—Time Pieces (large orchestra; two conductors)
  • 1985—Song offerings (soprano & ensemble)
  • 1985—Nataraja (flute & piano)
  • 1982—Lullaby for the Unsleeping (soprano & piano)
  • 1969—Images after Yeats (solo piano)

After listening to these, I was struck by their diversity of expression. No two pieces are alike. Even more striking was the naturalness of Harvey’s modernistic language. Most of these pieces are quite technically demanding for the performers, but they are no less expressive. I imagine that they are hugely rewarding for performers. Harvey’s sacred choral works were also particularly refreshing. Harvey has contributed fresh new ideas to a genre that is too often ignored by composers of his ilk. There is a certain sincerity to these sacred works too, which allows them to function as liturgical service music as well as concert music.

I came away considering Tranquil Abiding, the first piece I heard, to be the most rewarding of all these pieces. Other favorites were Missa Brevis, Time Pieces, Nataraja, and the String Quartet No.3. Most of all, I came away inspired.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae.
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