In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

by 5:4

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 and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and 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 and 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 and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.

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 and 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 and the concomitant seven heavens, but while that starts to bespeak the kind of hieratic language one associates with Olivier Messiaen (and 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 and 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 and 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 and D-flat, results in a harmonic language that is at once familiar and alien (another echo of Messiaen), endlessly mobile, never resting for more than a moment; it’s entirely fitting that a work so utterly focused on the sacred should sound comfortable and 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 and 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 and 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 and seemingly turning from substance into gas, diffusing into the aether. One can only imagine that Harvey himself now resides with these very angels.

Programme Note

Commissioned by the Rundfunkchor Berlin and its Chief Conductor, Simon Halsey (Commissioner I) and Fundación Patronata de la Semana de Musica Religiosa de Cuenca (Commissioner II). The text of Messages consists entirely of the names of Judaic and Persian angels. The choir can be thought to invoke angels, as in the great Renaissance and Baroque pictures of angel choirs, many of whom not only sing, but play Baroque instruments. Equally the choir can be imagined as being angels, bringing their spiritual messages to mankind. There is an echo of late Renaissance/early Baroque instrumental style to be heard in the opening ‘continuo’ flourish. The nine hierarchies angels are situated in the seven heavens, the seventh where the throne of God is usually said to reside, according to tradition. The music moves through the seven heavens in order. In the second heaven, St. Paul’s comment in the Letter to the Hebrews (1:7) “He maketh the winds his angels” is allowed to suggest a musical closeness to this force of nature, and to the invisible mobility of angelic beings. In the fifth heaven distant brass call to each other from ‘outer space’, mirroring the role of several angels who ‘announce’ with trumpets.

—Jonathan Harvey

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I actually listened to a performance of this piece on the day that he passed, and I was thinking of many of the same things you noted, especially the moving ending. Thank you for sharing the world premiere. I will give this one a spin. Shame that Harvey doesn’t get more respect here in the states, even in death. RIP.

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