THE composer Jonathan Harvey, who died in December 2012, was a
visionary, particularly inspired by mystical texts, and with a deep
personal interest in Buddhism. His ability to create spectacular
soundscapes, often by a mixture of electronic and acoustic
instruments, grew from a musical education that began as a choirboy
at St Michael's College, Tenbury, continued at St John's College,
Cambridge, and, on Benjamin Britten's advice, with Hans Keller and
Erwin Stein - who introduced him to the 12-tone system - then at
Pierre Boulez's IRCAM laboratory in Paris.
But it was at Tenbury that his life changed when the organist in
his concluding voluntary one day "did something really wild, which
was thrilling. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a composer
and do something similar." He also said: "I never got over that
sense of making music for the glory of God." His music, like the
man, has humanity and integrity.
Harvey was commissioned by Martin Neary, then organist of
Winchester Cathedral, to compose Passion and Resurrection,
a "church opera in twelve scenes, for soloists, chorus and
ensemble", which was first performed at Winchester in 1981, but not
heard again until 1993, when it was given in Westminster Abbey and
at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Liverpool, Sheffield, and
Llandaff, and in Bath Abbey. It was broadcast in 1999, and then in
2009 there were several performances in Ossiach, Austria; but it
was not revived in Britain until it formed the climax of the first
Voices of London festival this month at St James's, Sussex
The first 11 scenes use a translation by the Revd Michael
Wadsworth of an anonymous 12th-century Latin Passion play from the
Benedictine monastery of Montecassino; the 12th scene
(Resurrection) is from a play-book in Fleury Abbey, France.
Wadsworth's text has vibrancy and a humanity matched by Harvey's
music, which, to convey its message, must be matched by the singers
This was a semi-staged performance, in the large central space
of St James's, with the instrumental ensemble in the chancel to the
rear. There were very few props and no special lighting - except
for a torch with which the Maid taunts Peter as he denies he is a
disciple of Christ. Dress for everyone was "all black", Caiaphas
wearing a clerical shirt and collar. Many of the characters were
seated initially among the audience so that they could enter the
performance area from a variety of directions, giving the audience
a feeling of involvement.
It was directed by Matthew Monaghan, a self-confessed atheist
who discovered "an intensity locked within the fabric of the music
itself", and ultimately decided that "it is about basic human urges
and desires that disrupt and unsettle our senseof ourselves. A
group of young, attractive, and idealistic men rebel against the
establishment led by their charismatic leader, Jesus Christ. Their
values lie in love, not greed."
Harvey's score is a kind of exalted recitative, based on
plainsong, with complex time signatures that are really a means of
accommodating the natural shape and flow of words and phrases. At
St James's, the score was slightly shortened: Annas, Pilate's wife,
Procula, and the two thieves crucified with Christ were omitted,
with no great harm to the sense of the piece, as was part of scene
12 with the chorus and the three Marys.
The very end, where Harvey asks the brass quintet to disperse to
the four corners of the building, with a certain amount of
choreography, ending up outside, was not followed, but the
conclusion was no less effective in its radiance. As one writer has
commented, "Harvey reaches out and touches the sublime."
The performance deserved the heartfelt ovation it received at
the end, all the singers displaying remarkable ability to meet its
challenges. Outstanding were the Canadian tenor WeiHsi Hu as
Pilate, and the soprano Victoria Pym as Mary Magdalene. David
Jones's Jesus was good, but I felt that his was not quite the voice
(or the personality?) for the part, unless a Dennis Potter view of
Christ was intended. Having the chorus behind the scenes greatly
reduced the impact of the all-important Turba. Richard Harker
conducted with panache, and the instrumental ensemble was
Passion and Resurrection is a stunning piece that
deserves to be better known, and could, perhaps, even become
popular. I was not quite stunned, but was mightily impressed by
this performance, which could reignite interest and lead to a DVD,
fully staged with an audience, perhaps using Bishop John Taylor's
original 1981 Winchester production. There was fora short time a CD
of the BBC broadcast, but this no longer seems to be available.
It was a triumphant conclusion to this new festival,
encompassing days for office choirs, community singing with Ralph
Allwood, chamber choirs, youth choirs, early music, contemporary
music (including a composition prize, won by Ian Assersohn, judged
by Judith Weir and Stephen Jackson), and British music.
Encouragingly, St James's says that it is looking forward to
hosting it again next year.