John Harbison

b. 1938

John Harbison lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is the first permanent holder of the Class of 1949 Professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-director of the new music ensemble, Collage. He was Music Director of Cantata Singers from 1969 to 1973 and 1980 to 1982. From 1982 to 1984, at the request of Andre Previn, he was Resident Composer with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (funded by Exxon Corporation, Rockefeller Foundation, the NEA, and administered by Meet the Composer, Inc.). For the 1985-86 season he served as New Music Advisor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in 1986-87 he was Resident Composer with that orchestra, continuing the association with Mr. Previn.

He has received commissions from the Koussevitsky, Fromm, Naumberg, Rockefeller Foundations, as well as from many performing organizations, including anniversary commissions for the Boston Symphony (100th), New Haven Symphony (90th), and San Francisco Symphony (75th). His awards include the Brandeis Creative Arts Citation, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a BMI prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Kennedy Center Friedman Award in 1980 (first prize for orchestral music). He has been Resident Composer at the Santa Fe Festival, the American Academy in Rome, and Tanglewood.

His pieces have been presented by many performing organizations, including the Aspen and Berkshire Festivals, the San Francisco Opera Company, the New Opera Company (England), the New York Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center Chamber Players and the Fires of London. Recordings of Harbison's music are available on Nonesuch, CRI and New World. His music is published by Associated Music Publishers (NYC) and Composer Collaborative (Cambridge, MA). John Harbison was Music Director of the Cantata Singers from 1969 to 1973 and again from 1980 to 1982. He has conducted many orchestral and chamber ensembles, including the San Francisco, Boston and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras, Speculum Musicae and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. He and his wife, the violinist Rose Mary Harbison, spend part of each year at their farm in Token Creek, Wisconsin.

The Flight Into Egypt

Premiered on November 21, 1986

The Flight Into Egypt was composed on commission from Cantata Singers. The commission allowed me to follow through on musical ideas already in motion, at a time when I was working on a number of projects (of which this was the least "practical"). It is my first choral music in five years, and renews an association with Cantata Singers that dates back to 1969, when I became their Music Director, and continues to the present through many friendships and my close relationship with their remarkable Music Director, David Hoose.

I began "The Flight" on an impulse stemming from a conversation with Craig Smith and Rose Mary Harbison about Christmas texts. Craig Smith mentioned the Christmas season counseling experience of Rev. Al Kershaw at Emmanuel Church, Boston, as a time when need, isolation, and anxiety increase. We agreed that the darker side of Christmas needs representation, especially in a time of increasing distance between the privileged and the less fortunate.

I have worked twice before with unedited Bible texts in a narrative manner favored by Schutz and Stravinsky, and I'm sure I will again. Without those pieces I would feel that a significant part of what I want to do as a composer would not have a voice. In this piece the subject matter gave rise to musical techniques: a frequent reliance on points of imitation, and the derivation of most of the music from the short motives stated at the outset. These are metaphors for the pre-ordained, inevitable aspect of the story. The harmony is more freely ordered, in the interest of a more flexible and compassionate rendering of the details of the narrative. The most expressive element in the piece is the continuity, which fuses the narrative into one continuous impression, both abstract and highly colored.

When I wrote this piece I didn't even know of the existence of Schutz's incomparable setting of this text. But I should have known that if anyone were to be exploring the shadow-image of Christmas, in times not unlike ours, it would be that composer.

—John Harbison

But Mary Stood

Premiered on March 19, 2006

But Mary Stood (2006) was commissioned by Cantata Singers in honor of David Rockefeller, Jr. It begins with a Prelude for string orchestra, actually composed last. It is a summary of many of the musical questions posed in the other movements.

Next come two choral motets, both resulting from requests from important women in my life: my mother-in-law and my mother. These women were both political activists and religious seekers. They asked me (many years ago) to memorialize them with settings of their favorite scriptural passages.

The word "Charity" frames the text from Corinthians and is set as a symmetrical musical emblem, held by forces from above and below. More ambiguous harmonies describe various states of incomplete knowledge.

In Let Your Heart Be Troubled the aural picture contrasts the idea of the Consoled, remaining behind, with Christ in His upward journey.

Much of this music was composed while working with Cantata Singers on Bach’s Saint John Passion. There, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the two Marys move to the center of the stage. Jesus’ words to John, “Behold your mother,” ignited the power of the anima in the prayers and iconography of early Christianity.

Mary Magdalene, her presence both contrasting and complementary to Jesus’ mother, is the first to see that the tomb is empty, the first to meet the risen Christ, the first to report it. (“Do not touch me,” says Christ in the King James version, while “Cease clinging to me” is the 1976 translation by the Catholic Council.) John, the last gospel writer, responds to the longing for the Eternal Feminine: compassion, approachability, and sensuality.

My concluding movement, But Mary Stood, for soprano, double choir, and string orchestra, proposes the soloist as both Narrator and Mary, the double choir as Jesus. These three characters each have their own vocabulary, family related. The setting envisions a Mary Magdalene who was the true intimate of Jesus, who understood, intellectually and intuitively, his purpose on earth.

In composing a piece to honor longtime Cantata Singers leader and colleague David Rockefeller, Jr., I resolved to make something that would live close to the center of the themes typically associated with the Cantata Singers. All of us who have been involved with this organization have been grateful for the places the subject matter has taken us. This was at the heart of David’s devotion to the group, and I feel privileged to be able to add to our common legacy.

—John Harbison

The Supper at Emmaus

Premiered on May 9, 2014

A cantata on texts from Luke and I Timothy 1. Composed in 2014, this cantata is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, four-part chorus, two oboes, English horn, bassoon, organ and strings. The work was commissioned jointly by Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music, with generous support from David Rockefeller, Jr., the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation, and Epp K. Sonin. The first performance of the outer choral movements was given on March 2, 2014, with the orchestra and chorus of Emmanuel Music, Ryan Turner, conductor. This performance by Cantata Singers is the first complete performance.

David Hoose wrote to me at the end of July 2013, asking if I would be able to compose a piece for the Cantata Singers 50th anniversary. I described to him a long-contemplated cantata, The Supper at Emmaus, which our friend Craig Smith discussed with me some years ago—for both of us a favorite Biblical passage. Completing it now, in Craig’s memory, suggested a collaboration with Emmanuel Music, which the leaderships of both organizations was able to arrange.

The main narrative, Historia, sets the Biblical report of the story in Luke 24 (KJV) for four soloists and orchestra. Before and after this chronicle comes a Prelude and Postlude, for chorus and orchestra.

The chorus first sings the words from Luke of the guards (are they Angels?) who confront the women coming to the tomb seeking Jesus’ body. The Postlude text is from a letter of Paul. Its tone is common and personal; Heinrich Schütz composed, in the Geistliche Chormusik, this same text in memory of his friend, the composer Johann Hermann Schein.

When Craig Smith and I talked about this subject we started with Bach’s great Cantata 6, in which the themes of abandonment and loss are expressed as collective anguished lamentation, and as intimate loneliness and uncertainty. We also paid attention to many paintings, especially the two by Caravaggio, the first theatrical, the second later one meditative, with a mysterious new female figure, whose role, we decide, involves us. All the figures, including Jesus, were approachable, familiar. (In some of Caravaggio’s other painting his historic figures have dirty feet.)

A special hint for the composer came from Duccio’s marvelous painting The Road to Emmaus. Jesus is talking with the two disciples; he is disguised as a traveler, with broad-brimmed hat, knapsack, and walking stick.

One of the archetypal story beginnings: A Stranger Comes to Town.

And the strangeness, the mystery, the fervor, felicity, and awkwardness of the Scriptural account, a glowing recalcitrant found object, taken on just as it comes.

It is a great privilege to write another large piece of sacred music for two such cultivated institutions as the Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music. I am very grateful to both organizations and their executive directors, Jennifer Hughes and Pat Krol, to both music directors, David Hoose and Ryan Turner, and to the generous sponsors, David Rockefeller Jr., the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation, and Epp K Sonin.

—John Harbison