To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion & insight into sacred thought & action that made him entirely unique, & not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself—irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity—is perhaps the most fascinating & engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir & Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music.
Messages makes for a disquieting first impression—it’s tempting to conclude that nothing really happens, at least nothing of substance. The sung text comprises a list of Judaic & Persian angels—144 of them, no less—which is intoned solemnly through music emanating from a pair of diatonic chords. Harvey’s programme note (see below) cites the nine hierarchies of angels & the concomitant seven heavens, but while that starts to bespeak the kind of hieratic language one associates with Olivier Messiaen (& which is understandably off-putting to those of a more secular persuasion), there’s precisely nothing in the music that makes either lists or numbers feel remotely relevant. In truth, the music seems semi-improvisatory, guided by the words which, in a sense, don’t matter, being as they are merely the vehicle for a work that aspires to tap into & draw deeply on the transcendent heights of heaven in which these angelic forms are traditionally placed. The slow-moving, occasionally borderline-static choral movement is embedded within & borne aloft by opulent textures from the orchestra, encrusted with glinting percussion including the sparkling jangle of a cimbalom. There is a structure—or, at least, an order—of sorts in Messages, but Harvey’s language is such that keeping hold of one’s bearings often feels difficult, which is quite remarkable considering the work’s sedate pace. The underlying triadic sense, arising from those two fundamental chords of E-flat & D-flat, results in a harmonic language that is at once familiar & alien (another echo of Messiaen), endlessly mobile, never resting for more than a moment; it’s entirely fitting that a work so utterly focussed on the sacred should sound comfortable & unsettling simultaneously. To mention Messiaen one more time, the piece as a whole brings to mind what Robert Sherlaw Johnson described as his “ecstatic” idiom, where a single idea is conveyed by a music that is transfixed by the dazzling light & intensity of its own inner profundity. Only in that sense, to return to my initial point, could Messages be described as a piece where nothing really happens; on the contrary, something is happening, but its scale & scope aspire to nothing less than the infinite.
In light of Jonathan Harvey’s passing, i find the conclusion of Messages to be especially moving, the twin oscillating chords—which Harvey likened to breathing—gradually losing their pitch & seemingly turning from substance into gas, diffusing into the aether. One can only imagine that Harvey himself now resides with these very angels.
Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)