BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Music
BBC Radio 3

Radio 3

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

Cut And Splice 2005
Jonathan Harvey
Sketches for Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980)
Jonathan Harvey
From 1976 to 1980 my son Dominic was a chorister at Winchester cathedral. During that period, and ever since, I have written a number of works associated with that wonderful building and choir. Listening to the choir rehearse, as I often did, with the bells simultaneously ringing above, was one of the mingled impressions which started me on this work: it is entirely based on the boy's voice and that of the largest bell.

On this huge black bell is inscribed in beautiful lettering the following text: HORAS AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO (I count the feeling hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer). The bell counts time (each section has a differently pitched bell stroke at its beginning): it is itself a 'dead' sound for all its richess of sonority: the boy represents the living element. The bell surrounds the audience; they are, as it were, inside it: the boy 'flies' around like a free spirit.

In 1980 the sounds were recorded and taken to IRCAM, the sound-research institute in Paris that commissioned the work. There they were manipulated by computer and cross-bred with synthetic simulations of the same sounds. These latter being purely digital creations, could be internally transformed to an amazing degree, one could for instance move seamlessly from a vowel sung by the boy to the complex bell spectrum consisting of 33 partials. The entire pitch structure is based on these partials with their curious, haunting intervals: the harmonies are selected from them, and one transposed selection glissandoes to another.

In entering the rather intimidating world of the machine I was determined not to produce a dehumanised work if I could help it, and so kept fairly close to the world of the original sounds. The territory that the new computer technology opens up is unprecedently vast: one is humbly aware that it will only be conquered by penetration of the human spirit, however beguiling the exhibits of technical wizardry; and that penetration will neither be rapid or easy.
Jonathan Harvey

Born in Warwickshire in 1939, Jonathan Harvey was a chorister at St Michael's College, Tenbury and later a major music scholar at St John's College, Cambridge. He gained doctorates from the universities of Glasgow and Cambridge and also studied privately (on the advice of Benjamin Britten) with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller. He was a Harkness Fellow at Princeton (1969-70).

An invitation from Boulez to work at IRCAM in the early 1980s has resulted in eight realisations at the Institute, or for the Ensemble Intercontemporain, including the tape piece Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco, Ritual Melodies for computer-manipulated sounds, and Advaya for cello and live and pre-recorded sounds. Harvey has also composed for most other genres: orchestra (including Madonna of Winter and Spring, Tranquil Abiding and White as Jasmine), chamber (including three String Quartets, Soleil Noir/Chitra, and Death of Light, Light of Death, for instance) as well as works for solo instruments.

He has produced a large output of choral works, including the large cantata with electronics Mothers shall not Cry (2000). His church opera Passion and Resurrection (l981) was the subject of a BBC television film, and has received twelve subsequent performances. His opera Inquest of Love, commissioned by ENO, was premiered there in 1993 and repeated at Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels in 1994.
©Faber 2004.

Related Links
on radio 3
on the web
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy