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Jonathan Harvey

Composer;

Born: May 3, 1939; Died: December 4, 2012.

Jonathan Harvey, who has died aged 73 of motor neurone disease, was a major English composer of the post-Britten era whose links with Scotland – and particularly with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – developed extraordinarily in the last years of his life.

The unexpectedness with which this happened still gets talked about. Its public starting point was in 2005, when he was invited by Hugh Macdonald, BBC Scotland's perceptive head of music, to become the orchestra's latest Composer in Association. It was an appointment which proved special enough to establish the belief that if you wanted to keep up with Mr Harvey's progress, you had to come to Glasgow to do so.

By then, the BBC SSO had moved with its conductor Ilan Volkov – the brilliant young predecessor of Donald Runnicles – from its old headquarters in Queen Margaret Drive to its state-of-the-art residence in Candleriggs and was celebrating this in various exciting ways, one of which was its sudden focus on a tall, slim, mild-mannered composer who (on the advice of Benjamin Britten) had studied music privately under such fierce Viennese pundits as Erwin Stein and Hans Keller.

Thereafter he had held professorships at Sussex University and Stanford, California, had been a Harkness Fellow at Princeton, and had worked with Pierre Boulez at IRCAM, the French composer's vanguard research institute in Paris.

With Karlheinz Stockhausen as well as Boulez and Messiaen among his mentors, Mr Harvey forged his potent combination of electronic technique with the spirituality of Buddhism and other philosophies which would define his manner of composing in the years ahead. Yet his Glasgow connections, though initially quiet to the verge of what now seem almost like secrecy, went back a long way, and included a university doctorate in 1965 along with a spell as cellist in the BBC SSO (Norman Del Mar, the orchestra's progressive conductor at the time, was one of the first to spot his potential as a composer).

As Mr Harvey, who grew up in Warwickshire, moved from place to place, he gained enlightenment from reading Rudolf Steiner on the art of meditation and from studying musical serialism with the austere Milton Babbitt in America. By 1981, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra had given the first performance of his Whom Ye Adore in one of its autumn Musica Nova festivals in Glasgow. The quiet man of English music had by now taken his first soft steps into the unknown.

What followed was a flow of evocative works forming part of what was recognised as a pragmatic, pluralistic culture where, as the New Yorker's music critic Alex Ross declared in his book The Rest Is Noise, "unexpected combinations were the rule". Though Mr Harvey's improbable combination of electronics and meditation has had more difficulty establishing itself in Britain than elsewhere – Ilan Volkov's mind-blowing triptych of his works with the BBC SSO at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival was played to an almost empty Usher Hall – it has not been for lack of performance or intelligent discussion.

Though Ilan Volkov's public declaration that Mr Harvey's pre-eminence was unquestionable, and that he was proud to work alongside such a distinguished composer, seemed to fall on stony ground, the notorious Edinburgh mishap failed to register elsewhere. The Glasgow Tramway had already championed his music. Tranquil Abiding, his work for chamber orchestra, had reached Aberdeen. His fourth string quartet, with electronics, had had a Glasgow outing.

By 2011, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic had commissioned Weltethos for chorus and orchestra, his massive tribute to all the world's main religions. Wagner Dream, his Buddhist-influenced opera premiered in Amsterdam in 2007, and comes to Cardiff next year. Ashes Dance Back – a characteristic Harvey title – has been hailed by Alex Ross for the way it uses a spectral analysis in the IRCAM vein to shed an eerie new light on the centuries-old English choral tradition.

That tradition, it's true, was Mr Harvey's own – in his youth he was a chorister at St Michael's College, Tenbury, before becoming a music scholar at St John's, Cambridge, and eventually composing Mortuos Plango, an inspired electronic evocation of the largest bell of Winchester Cathedral. It was his merging of chorus with electronics that British audiences, unlike French and German ones, continued to find difficult, and still do. But there is, as Hugh Macdonald declared this week, a "visceral strength in Harvey's music", a violent and sometimes pounding dynamism which pervades much of what he wrote. That's something else his Glasgow flowering from 2005 helped to intensify.

His last works, written in recent months, include Cirrus Light for solo clarinet and The Annunciation for the choir of St John's College, Cambridge. He is survived by his wife, Rosa Barry, and their son and daughter.

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