Most of the obituaries and remembrances of composer Jonathan Harvey that I’ve read this week cite not only the quality of the man’s work but also the quality of his character. “The spirituality of his music also pervaded his personality; no one who met him came away without commenting on his gentleness, generosity and breadth of imagination,” said his publisher, Sally Cavender. “His gentle spirit and inner strength impressed me greatly and he will be much missed,” said the BBC’s Roger Wright. It is a poor thing to speak ill of the dead, of course, but a rare thing to speak so highly of them too.
My wife, who performed his piano work Tombeau de Messiaen at Columbia University in New York in 1999 and had the opportunity to meet the composer for drinks a few times, also testifies to Harvey’s gentlemanliness. It’s a trait which is possessed — or rather, was possessed — by many of the writers I admire, not the least of whom are Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, and William Gaddis, who were similarly noted for their gentlemanly modesty, humility, and kindness in their everyday meanderings through this world (having been briefly acquainted with Gaddis personally, I can testify to his). They suffered fools, of whom there is an unlimited supply, wisely and well if not gladly (and at times each one of us appears a fool to somebody else), and when you were with them their time was always exclusively yours, an example of their generosity of spirit. The man is not the work, of course, but something of this quality enters into the work somehow and can be found there, preserved in the perspective. It is a danger to push this too far; one risks the biographical fallacy; it’s the kind of thinking that allows people to consider Wagner’s operas to be inherently anti-Semitic due to the composer’s personal political views.
The social encouragement and compulsion to constantly display our hubris and pride in public and semi-public fora, to market or assert ourselves and our opinions, as our counsellors and analysts advise, have undermined these gentlemanly qualities. And our enthusiasm in doing so says something ugly about ourselves. It’s not that these individuals were not honest, or passionate, or angry, or emotional — it’s that they kept these close to the vest; the flashes of these qualities were made more powerful and meaningful when expressed because they were unusual deviations from their inborn modesty or humility. The pitch was rarely high, and so when they became loud, it meant something.
I’m drawn more to the art of these gentlemen and less to those of the men and women who are not. Perhaps with time my perception of this underlying gentility becomes sharper and more persuasive. Maybe I’m just getting softer myself. But I do admire these qualities more now than I did the past. And I endeavor to practice some of these qualities, just as a reminder of what they once signified.