Thursday, 2 February 2012

I Lament the Dead: the Living I Call to Prayer

British composer Jonathan Harvey (b.1939) is an avant-garde composer who often strikes a chord with the listening public. His mesmeric Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, computer-manipulating the voice of a boy chorister (the composer's son) and  the tenor bell at Winchester Cathedral into an aural phantasmagoria, is one of the best-loved works of electronic classical music (not that there's much competition!). 

His two best known works, however, are more traditional. They are both choral pieces, often performed by Anglican choirs.

The first is Come, Holy Ghost, which uses the plainchant melody Veni Creator Spiritus. The chant is sent across the voices of an unaccompanied chorus. You will hear it clearly in those passages which foreground an individual singer (the tenor especially) against an ethereal cloud of voices, or in dreamy counterpoint, but towards the end it is sung by each member of the choir as an individual in his or her own time - a sonic equivalent of floating incense. 

The second is I Love the Lord, a psalm setting, combines the serenity of confidence in God (as represented by an unchanging G major chord) with the anguish of present suffering (represented by chromatic writing). Harvey's musical language here is particularly redolent of the English tradition but that side of him that remains avant-garde is evident in the (electronic-like) exploitation of resonance and spatial effects. The key to the work's success is surely its warmth, much as with Come, Holy Ghost.

Another delightful piece from this composer is his tribute to the great Olivier Messiaen, Tombeau de Messiaen, which certainly doesn't lack certain of the pianistic textures familiar from the Frenchman's music, but which sets them against a tape part that projects the music of many more pianos, all tuned microtonally. It's another phantasmagoria, alternately dramatic and beautiful. Listen out for the remarkable passage of counterpoint towards the close, which resembles another highly individual composer of the last century - Conlon Nancarrow

There's quite a lot of Jonathan Harvey's music on YouTube. He is well worth seeking out.

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