Jonathan Harvey – a personal tribute

Elaine Gould, an alto with the Joyful Company of Singers, has been Senior New Music Editor at Faber Music since 1987, in which capacity she has edited the complex and varied scores of many composers, including Jonathan Harvey. Recognised as a leader in the field, and a vital source of wit and common sense in JCOS rehearsals when we are wrangling new music, Elaine is author of the notation “bible” Behind Bars.

Elaine worked with Jonathan Harvey for 25 years and below is the personal tribute she has drafted ahead of our next concert, where we will be performing his pieces I Love the Lord and Forms of Emptiness:

Jonathan Harvey (1939 – 2012)
A Personal Tribute

That I am to fly off soon to celebrate the arrival of Jonathan’s manuscripts in Basel is a measure of the esteem in which his oeuvre is now held and a mark of the international recognition it has gained in recent years. The manuscripts will be housed at the Sacher Foundation Archive, alongside those of Stravinsky, Bartok, Ligeti and many great 20th-century composers, an acquisition that made Jonathan very happy at the end of his life, tragically cut short by Motor Neurone Disease last December.

Jonathan was one of the most original of British composers, yet also very much European: a musician whose music did travel beyond our own shores, and there’s not so much that does. JCOS’s 1994 recording of Jonathan’s choral works was groundbreaking at the time, not to say an astonishing achievement on a mere 8 rehearsals! A measure of his growing reputation is that since that recording these wonderful choral works have been embraced by many European choirs (mostly professional) who have followed in our path with recordings of their own.

For us in the choral world, Jonathan has left a legacy of extraordinary and original works. He is a unique composer in creating a body of innovative masterpieces also in the fields of instrumental and electronic music. His pioneering work with electronic music had studios round the world queuing up to invite him to create works and he relished their invitations (especially from those in sunny places).

Ideas fed from one medium to another and he was always brimming over with ideas for new pieces, pushing at the boundaries of musical thought to create new soundworlds. His eyes would light up, ‘Ah, I have an idea for that!’ he would say in his quiet and modest way, while giving nothing away. He would also borrow from the old and the new: for instance, 17thC madrigal style and 1960s’ aleatoric counterpoint stand side by side in Forms. Imagine my surprise when, in 1998, this disciple of Stockhausen brought into the office his latest orchestral piece, Tranquil Abiding. ‘Jonathan, you’ve written a piece in E flat major!’ His reply was ‘This is my pot boiler – I want to make Faber lots of money.’ And many performances there have been of this lovely work.

Many living composers of concert music steer well clear of non-professional choirs, yet, as we witnessed on so many occasions, Jonathan would never miss an opportunity to hear us singing his pieces, even while at the same time writing his last big commission, Weltethos, for the Berlin Philharmonic. He loved live performance, and he loved the spirit and commitment of JCOS’s performances.

Having edited Jonathan’s manuscripts for 25 years, I carefully packed them up for their final journey a few months back, reflecting that in all that time I had never persuaded dear Jonathan of the value of a pencil sharpener. Deciphering his hand became increasingly tricky, yet he knew exactly what he wanted. All of life was in those pieces – what fun we had imitating the animal sounds in Marahi – yet every rhythm and pitch had its place even if it did look somewhat (or extremely) vague on the page. There was never a cross word, even when, as a young editor, I might have been in big trouble when an unrevised set of instrumental parts was discovered at an ensemble’s final rehearsal – while the corrected set sat in our hire library. Jonathan spent the evening before the concert correcting the set by hand rather than make a fuss. How I wished he had!

Jonathan was a truly remarkable man and a remarkable composer. He was modest about his own achievements, endlessly inquisitive and a man without cynicism. His mission was to evoke the spiritual in everything and he, too, was the rare spirit to many of us.

Elaine Gould
October 2013


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1 Response to Jonathan Harvey – a personal tribute

  1. musicbru says:

    Reblogged this on Musicbru and commented:
    A personal tribute to a great composer lost to us last year.

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