Past masters

April 14, 1995

Composer Jonathan Harvey recalls his former maestros. I liked several of my Cambridge tutors well enough, but I did not get the sort of teaching that I needed. Analysis was rudimentary, the idea of dwelling on a detail, writing a couple of pages on a phrase or even a bar, was wholly foreign to Cambridge teaching. Yet that is what a composer needs.

Neither was there any application of other disciplines to the study of music history - though I do vaguely remember Thurston Dart expounding the paleographic science of watermark detection. I would have liked philosophy, sociology, psychology; but of all these the music teaching was innocent.

Paddy Hadley taught composition. He was an Irish charmer - everyone loved him, except perhaps the Girton girl who fainted in her morning supervision, no longer able to remain demure with Paddy telling his hilarious stories sans wooden leg, sans teeth, well topped up with Scotch and pyjama flies neglectfully open. The last time I saw him was in a supervision where I had brought along my latest proud offering. Paddy had had quite a bit that morning and he took violent exception to a note I had written in the viola. (Why that one in hundreds of similar "offenders" I never figured out.) He said it was an unresolved dissonance (this was 1960, the point might have been fairly taken in 1900, but history, without Paddy, had moved on, I felt). As his offended sensibilities reached shouting pitch I rose to my feet in pale silence, strode out, slammed the door and never went back.

No, my real masters at that time were Viennese refugees in London: Erwin Stein until he died, and then Hans Keller. I was extremely fond of both of them. With Stein I learned detailed analysis from the Schoenberg stable, and the painstaking application of that work in parallel composition exercises. A tiny, round, kindly man, I shall never forget the blunt, energetic force of such remarks as he made on my first visit to his flat on noisy Kensington High Street when he peered through my quintet: "Vell, you are no Mozart anyvay". Benjamin Britten had, I heard later, given me a rosy recommendation and I must have been at least a little lower than his expectations. Britten, on Stein's death, found me my next teacher too, Hans Keller.

Hans wasn't a composer any more than Stein was, but he was a marvellous critic - a term he would hate and in fact wrote a book condemning as "a phoney profession". The book is half right, as Hans would say; because he himself disproved it by sitting in a chair with my score in his hand in the BBC bar or some music-free pub (they existed then) and criticising. I was always enormously encouraged by his criticisms because they sprang from a joy in music and reverence for serious activity in it, however faltering. Music was urgently (again!) precious. And delicate, and sensitive and at root mysterious.

He was trained in Viennese psychoanalysis; thus his background model for creative work was his experience of Freudian free association. He taught abandon, freedom from academic hankerings after unity. Only unconscious laws could successfully unify contrasts polarised to the limit of tolerance. This was heady stuff. But our discussions were long, wide-ranging and enormous fun. He drew out the shy, inhibited English student into East European or Jewish landscapes which were both strictly intellectual and wildly Dionysian. No wonder I was not only intoxicated by the whisky he plied me with until the evening dissolved into sometimes helpless laughter.

Jonathan Harvey will be professor of music at Stanford University, California, from September.

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