TAVENER: Lament for Jerusalem
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John Tavener (b. 1945)
Lament for Jerusalem
Sir John Tavener describes the Lament for Jerusalem asa mystical love song. The Lament brings togetherChristian, Judaic, and Islamic texts and is sung in Greekand English. The musical structure is that of a latticewhose proportions are carefully designed so that thelistener is invited to focus on key points of the textwhich are themselves supported by transcendentalmelodic, harmonic, and textural devices. The simplicityof the work's form and its logical progression through aseries of seven linked, self-referential tableaux allow theLament to grow in power and beauty during its course.
The American composer Steve Reich has describedsome of his own music as purveying 'a kind of dynamicstasis' and that aptly sums up the effect of Tavener'sLament for Jerusalem. The Lament is rooted in grimtradition, yet it looks longingly into the future to a timewhen beatific vision is restored, and, as in much of thevery greatest art, form and content are inseparable.
The shape of each Cycle is the same: the choir singsa passage from Psalm 137, 'By the waters of Babylon,there we sat down and we wept when we rememberedSion', culminating in an ecstatic Alleluia; aninstrumental (Cosmic) Lament; a section sung by thecountertenor to segments of the prologue of the epicwork Masnavi by the thirteenth-century Islamic spiritualmaster Jalaluddin Rumi; a further passage from Psalm137 sung by the soprano leading to a quiet threefoldOrthodox Alleluia; finally, a heart-rending statement bythe choir of Christ's lament over Jerusalem (fromChapter 23 of St Matthew's Gospel). The work's mosaicstructure is punctuated by growling bulges of varyingduration, texture, and dynamic provided by the loweststrings after each of the choir's psalm-verses, after eachof the countertenor's Sufi verses, and after each of thechoir's Christic Laments: these represent the worldwearysighs and groans of the city of Jerusalem.
On the face of it, the Lament for Jerusalem isrepetitive. Only one bar, however, the nostalgic tripartitestatement of the words of Christ 'He wept over her', isrepeated musically verbatim. Certainly the work is basedon remarkably few melodic, harmonic, and texturalelements, but these elements are crystallised, expanded,altered, and developed in subtle but perceptible waysthroughout the piece. Indeed it is Tavener'ssuperlatively delicate treatment of his musical materialthat affords the work such emotional momentum. Theconstant fluctuation of mode within a firmly tonalbackground, the rhythmic instability couched withincarefully-controlled metre, and the culturallykaleidoscopic instrumentation create a musical alloywhose chemistry is difficult to determine at closequarters yet which from a distance reveals a work whosewhole is incomparably greater than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Lament isthe way in which the grandeur and majesty of the largergestures highlight the importance of the smaller (andultimately more universal) motifs. For all the heartfeltrenditions of the choir's Laments, growing as they do inlength and volume throughout the piece, the quiet trio atthe conclusion of those sections (set to the text of Luke19, v41) expresses the emotional kernel. Similarly, forall the melismatic weeping of the soprano in captivity,her reflective final Alleluias provide the focus of herdistress, and the transparently orchestrated CosmicLaments with their constantly changing chromaticinflections and variations of echoes and pre-echoes, arehauntingly devoid of consolation.
Lament for Jerusalem is a testament to JohnTavener's craft and to his deep-rooted spirituality, theadmixture of which allows the Lament to functionsimultaneously as a mundane cri de coeur and asheavenly panacea. The piece is, as the composerreminds us, a love poem, and its function is to move thelistener both by its simplicity and by its complexinterweaving of Christian, Judaic, and Islamic tradition.
In Tavener's own words: 'Perhaps the tiniest particle ofHal, the Arabic word for divine love, might touch asingle soul, or better three souls'.Jeremy Summerly