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: What do you believe?
John Harbison: I guess my personal philosophy almost always has to do with … in the most important way with the need that I feel everyone has before an artistic element in their lives. And it doesn’t matter what their profession is … I heard once that everyone in the world has written a poem. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it should be true. Something like it must be true because I don’t think anyone lacks what we would call an artistic impulse. And what I feel more than sort of political causes that I might be interested in, I think that the cause that I would embrace is the idea that people might be encouraged to experience, even for a few moments in a day, the idea that the imagination is ruling their life for a moment. And that would be my prime cause in spite of the fact that, you know, I have occasionally written pieces with very frankly political subjects. And I’ve spent moments in my life, you know, 1964 when I went with all of the freedom summer folks to Mississippi with a group from here. And we definitely experienced an amazing moment in the politics of this country. But when I’ve addressed things like that in my music, it’s been much more because it’s a part of a whole emotional complex for myself, than that I want to convert or influence opinion. Because unfortunately the audience for such a piece usually agrees. And I think, you know, if one were really to be serious about moving people through the arts, politically you’d have to almost find … select your way into an audience that doesn’t like what you’re saying. And very seldom of course do we ever do that.It does. 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.Oh. The hardest thing is to have compassion and forgiveness. Tolerance is also a really hard one, because some of the major issues in this country . . . you know, race, and I’d have to even say a kind of intellectual tolerance. I’m very bothered that many groups in this country are dismissive of other groups because they feel they are not as cultured and not as educated. I think we have a very tremendous attraction to intolerance almost bred into the early life of this country. So yeah. I would consider those my major virtues. And also it’s, you know, so hard to apologize for things. And I’m always impressed by people who, when they’ve done something really wrong, don’t do the standard thing which is just to make it worse and ostracize, but actually go the whole way and try to reengage the situation. And in our profession, our music profession, there are constant tests of those issues.
Recorded On: 6/12/07