Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012)

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Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis is the staff writer of BBC Music Magazine

Elizabeth Davis
, Updated 6th December 2012

Composer of works including ‘Wagner Dream’ dies aged 73

Jonathan HarveyThe British composer Jonathan Harvey has died at the age of 73 after suffering from motor neurone disease.

Harvey’s best known works include Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, an electronic piece using the sound of the bells of Winchester Cathedral and a boy treble, and Wagner Dream, an opera imagining the last moments of Wagner’s life.

The composer was born in Sutton Coldfield in 1939 and became a chorister at St Michael’s College in Tenbury, Worcestershire. It was here that he decided to be a composer, when he heard an organ voluntary after evensong. ‘Usually these voluntaries were real milk-and-water affairs,' he later recalled, 'but one day the organist did something really wild, which was thrilling. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a composer, and do something similar.’

Later, he studied music at St John’s College, Cambridge and, privately, with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. Alongside his work as a composer, Harvey was also an eminent member of the academic music world, holding posts at Southampton University, Sussex University and Stanford University, California.

His music was influenced by the work of Stockhausen and Harvey was also one of the first composers to use Ircam, Pierre Boulez’s Paris-based musical research institute, as he composed Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Another strong influence in Harvey’s writing was eastern philosophy. He practiced Buddhist-inspired meditation and his music drew on oriental-style melodies.

The opera Wagner Dream imagines the final moments of Wagner’s life: Vairochana, a guide, appears to the composer and helps him great his long-cherished Buddhist dream. The critic Christopher Dingle said of the work: ‘In lesser hands the result could be crass, but this compelling triumph succinctly captures something of Wagner’s complexity of character, while looking beyond.’

In January 2012 the Barbican devoted one of its ‘Total Immersion’ weekends to his music and his work Weltethos was performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

'With the death of Jonathan Harvey we have lost a hugely important figure in classical music,' says Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3. 'His was a powerfully original music which rightly received international acclaim.  His gentle spirit and inner strength impressed me greatly and he will be much missed.'

He is survived by his wife, Rosaleen and their two children, Anna and Dominic.

Contributor profile

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis

Elizabeth Davis is the staff writer of BBC Music Magazine

Elizabeth Davis