John Tavener (b. 1945)
Song for Athene / Svyati and other choral works
JohnTavener studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir Lennox Berkeley andDavid Lumsdaine. In 1968 his dramatic cantata The Whale took itsaudience by storm and led to his music being recorded on The Beatles' Applelabel. Since that time Tavener has continued to show an originality of conceptand an intensely personal idiom, making his a voice quite separate from thoseof his contemporaries. Over the years, the contemplative side of his nature hasled him in more spiritual directions and his commitment to the Russian OrthodoxChurch, which he joined in 1977, is now evident in all his work.
Inan interview published in his recent book The Music of Silence, Sir JohnTavener wrote. "If you listen to the music of the East, somehow the divineis already there. It is - which is a parallel with the eternal 'I am."'What this means in practical terms is that Tavener, in aiming at writing musicsuitable to convey the theology and the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, toparticipate in some way in that "eternal 'I am"', creates music ofwhat one might call "dynamic stasis". In other
words,the long phrases of eastern chant (of various traditions), the harmonictransparency and the stillness of his work runs counter to what the composersees as the more "active" spirit of western sacred music; nevertheless,Tavener's western background inevitably and naturally plays its part, and theunique sound of the fusion of these two is characteristic of all of the works onthis disc.
God is with us, which has the subtitle \A Christmas Proclamation", isa good example of this approach. Written in 1987, its text is an adaptation ofpart of the service of Compline, as celebrated on Christmas Eve in the OrthodoxChurch. its powerful chant-like melodic lines celebrate the incarnation usingwords originating in the Old Testament prophecies. Essentially a simple three-partstructure, refrains framing a highly ornamented central tenor solo, there is anunexpected al works transformation at the end, when Tavener introduces the - western!- organ to reinforce the massive sound required from the choir announcing thebirth of Christ.
Song for Athene, which has become one of Tavener's best known pieces sinceit was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, takes as its text a mixtureof Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet) and the Orthodox funeral service.
The work, originally written in 1993, is typical of Tavener's rich choralsound, its peals of "Alleluia" increasing gradually in volume and impingingfurther on the listener's consciousness. In both these works, the choralwriting carries resonances of renaissance polyphony (though it is far from contrapuntalin construction) and of the English cathedral tradition but transmutes theminto something quite different, and quite recognisably by Tavener.
Love bade me welcome, a setting of George Herbert made in 1985, in spite of itsevocation of Orthodox chant in its melodic style, is also characterized by a veryEnglish reticence, eschewing detailed word-painting, which paradoxically permitsa tremendous intensity and identification with the awe at the mystery of the "divinecondescension" of Love. English poetry, by William Blake, also elicits asimilarly instinctive and effective response in The Lamb and TheTiger. The former, also from 1985, was made famous by the choir of King's College,Cambridge by its inclusion in theannual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, might almost be described as a(sacred) lullaby, built on a lyrical idea and its inversion. The latter, datingfrom two years later. is. appropriately, a dazzling, fiery evocation of the "fearfulsymmetry" of this symbol of the energy of God's creation; it includes amasterstroke in the quotation of the music for The Lamb at the words"Did
hewho made the Iamb make thee?"
Tavener'sMagnificat and Nunc dimittis Collegium Regale of 1986 were also writtenfor King's College, Cambridge. Although they were intended for the Anglican liturgy, (hey make exceptionaluse of the ison (drone) of Greek Orthodox tradition, and in the Magnificat
Tavener includes the troparion to the Mother of God, "Greater inhonour than the Cherubim, and glorious incomparably more than the seraphim, thouwho inviolate didst bring forth God the Word, and art indeed the true Mother ofGod: thee do we magnify". This is inserted after each verse of the text,according to Orthodox usage. Increasingly rich scoring is used for each verse,and the troparion is set with particular exuberance. By contrast, (he Nuncdimittis is a sparer, more restrained setting, though showing a similarly imaginativeuse of colour.
Two Hymns to the Mother of God date from 1985. The first sets part of atext taken from the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, celebrated on the Feast ofSt Basil and on the Sundays of Great Lent, speaking of the cosmic power of theMother of God, her in whom "all creation rejoices". Tavener sets itas a double choir canon, with striking passing dissonances, to magical effect,and formally it is tripartite. The second hymn takes a text from the Feast of theDormition (falling asleep) of the
Motherof God, in which the Virgin addresses the Apostles and Christ, repeated threetimes in varying scorings. Funeral Ikos is one of Tavener's most serenelybeautiful works. It sets words from the service for burial of priests. Themusic, austere and hypnotic, repeats six times in different vocal combinations,until (he whole text is covered. Each section is demarcated by an' Alleluia'.the texts of Orthodox funeral services express not only the awareness of thetransitory nature
ofmortal life ("Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where thenis the glory of this world?"), but a clear hope and belief in life afterdeath.
As One who has slept (1997) deals with what the composer describes as the"awe, silence and expectation" which characterize the Liturgy of StBasil celebrated on the morning of Great and Holy Saturday, when Hell isharrowed and death is trampled underfoot by the Resurrection which will becelebrated at midnight, The main choir, which sings the text twice, followed byAlleluias, is "shadowed" by a second, singing a choral drone whichmoves, in the first section, from E minor to E major and back again, andsimilarly in the second from F sharp minor to F sharp major and back, Thebareness of the musical material in this work is very striking Tavener's mostrecent setting of the Lord's Prayer (1999) is constructed in a similarlyeconomical fashion, but what strikes one when listening to them is the harmonicebb-and-flow, the waves of gentle diss