John Harbison is an American composer whose work is notable for its astonishing range and diversity. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance and is also considered original and accessible for a wide range of audiences. His major works include four string quartets, four symphonies, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning cantata The Flight into Egypt and three operas, including "The Great Gatsby," which was commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and first performed in December 1999. Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Santa Fe Chamber Festival, the American Academy in Rome, Tanglewood, the California Institute for the Arts and Chamber Music West. He is also an Institute Professor at MIT and the Acting Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music. Harbison holds an MFA from Princeton University.
Question: How does religion inform your work?
John Harbison: It’s probably the hardest thing for me to articulate because most of my life as a performer deals with forms of religious music. And I certainly feel that when I conduct a Bach cantata that I am absolutely engaged by – not in an abstract way at all – the issues, and the stories, and the experience. But I can’t find a formal structure for that. And when I write a religious text, I would have to say that I am as gripped by the ancientness and the sound of the words, and this feeling that they are carrying significance, almost that has been sort of gradually attached to them over centuries. I would like to feel that all of the assertions were things I can insert. And that’s not really how I feel. So when I said a religious text, I would say first of all it’s the text I’m in love with, the way the words sounds, and the King James Bible I could read over and over. The King James Bible I’ve come back to so often for text. And it was really translated at a moment where the English language had an extraordinary rhythmic and verbal variety. It’s Shakespeare era. And I find sometimes the passage that attracts me as unusual words or rhythms that I just find absolutely irresistible. In addition to, of course, it’s accumulated significance; but it’s as much just a deep affection for a text, a love for a text, as it is the whole world doctrine from which it emerges. And of course like a lot of people who are dealing with church music, and I actually work as a church musician some of the time, it’s terribly unsettling to have to contemplate how much of the conflict in the world, to this day, is generated by religious groups; by people who are fired up about the doctrine. And it’s difficult for someone like myself to embrace the institutional issues, having from a semi historian’s point of view, a pretty firm idea that they often lead to people fighting each other about them.
Recorded On: 6/12/07