'Compelling' (Classic CD)
''The Lamb' alone is worth the price of this disc' (Fanfare, USA)
Love bade me welcome [4'24]
Arguably Britain’s greatest living choral composer, Sir John Tavener’s music is performed in churches and cathedrals throughout the land and at the most important state occasions. This glorious recording from the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, includes The Lamb, perhaps one of the best-known choral works of the late twentieth century.
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An essential part of the Orthodox Church is its special respect for tradition. It is seen as a living, creative force rather than as something dead or inhibiting. Thus it is that there is so great an appreciation of the early Fathers, seen as inheritors and continuers of the tradition of Scripture; thus it is that the techniques of ikon painting today are essentially what they were in the earliest examples; thus it is that the music of the Church has largely remained within the spirit of the early chant traditions.
John Tavener’s music since he became a member of the Orthodox Church in 1977 has been increasingly orientated towards this notion of tradition. He has attempted to discard the heritage of humanist art (homocentric in origin and aim) and to absorb the precepts of the liturgical music of Orthodox tradition—that is to say, music which is theocentric. In practical terms this has meant that Tavener’s music has drawn upon actual chant, or has otherwise availed itself of the characteristics of chant both Russian and Byzantine. It could, nevertheless, not have been written at any other time than the late twentieth century: it is at once rooted in the depths of time and startlingly contemporary.
The Uncreated Eros (1988) presents us immediately with a Byzantine drone (ison) and a single, chant-like melodic line, and the canonic choral treatment of the melody later in the piece only serves to emphasize the chromatic inflections characteristic of the Greek chant repertoire. The title of the piece requires some explanation: the text deals with the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib as recounted in Genesis. ‘It is an attempt in musical notes’, Tavener has written, ‘to recreate our Paradisial nature.’ ‘Uncreated Eros’ represents the uncreated love of God, love in its fullness: it is beyond mortal love in the same way that the uncreated light of God, present at the transfiguration of Christ, and experienced since by some saints and very holy men, is beyond the light of the sun. The radiant colours and ethereal textures of the music (deliberately recorded from a considerable distance) try to present this idea in physical sound.
Utterly different in one sense are the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Collegium Regale‘, written in 1986 for King’s College, Cambridge. These are, by contrast, straightforward settings for use in the Anglican liturgy, but they are certainly among the most unusual pieces in that repertoire. They employ, like The Uncreated Eros, a melody with a drone in the Greek style. In addition, the Magnificat retains the troparion to the Mother of God of Orthodox usage, which is inserted after each verse of the text. The melody of the Magnificat is sung with different scorings of increasing richness for each verse, with a jubilant refrain for the troparion. The Nunc dimittis is a simpler, less elaborate piece melodically, but enjoys the same wealth of choral colour. King’s College was also the choir to make famous The Lamb (1985), through its inclusion in their annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. This carol is a gentle, lyrical setting of Blake’s famous poem, based on a simple melodic idea and its inversion.
The Hymn to the Mother of God and Hymn for the Dormition, both written in 1985, form a pair. The first sets a text taken from the Liturgy of St Basil, sung on the feast of St Basil and on all the Sundays of Great Lent. It speaks of the cosmic power of the Mother of God, in whom ‘all creation rejoices’. Tavener sets it as a brief but extremely intense canon between two choirs, in three sections: the incandescent music of the first is repeated after the central section which hails the Mother of God as ‘sanctified temple, mystical paradise’. The second Hymn uses a text for the Feast of the Dormition (that is, falling asleep) of the Mother of God: she asks the apostles to bury her body in Gethsemane, and Christ to receive her spirit. The text is simply repeated three times, the scoring being varied: the first time simply has the chant sung over a three-part drone; the second has it sung in fifths and with its inversion; and the third has a rich parallel-chord harmonization.
Very different in character are the Christmas pieces Today the Virgin (1989) and God is with us. The former takes its inspiration from the Medieval folk-carol, with a suitable text by Mother Thekla (Abbess at Normanby) and has an infectiously memorable refrain with an increasing Alleluia. The latter is described as a ‘Christmas proclamation’, and was completed in 1987 for Martin Neary and the Choir of Winchester Cathedral. The text is adapted from the Orthodox service of Great Compline, which is sung on Christmas Eve; its basis is biblical. Beginning in tranquillity, the piece is in fact a radiant and joyful celebration. Much use is made of a solo tenor who sings a haunting melody, Byzantine in inspiration, while the choir sings cascades of notes around him. The shock comes in the final section with the introduction of the organ at the words ‘Christ is born!’, when the music is disconcertingly freed from harmonic weight.
Saint Andrew of Crete was born late in the seventh century. His Great Canon, one of the most remarkable spiritual texts of Orthodoxy and one of the most extraordinary poetic achievements of Greek literature, is appointed to be read in its entirety at the morning service of Thursday in the fifth week of Great Lent. Tavener sets only the first Ode of the Canon (a complex liturgical form in the Orthodox Rite), from which the length of the whole may be gauged. The composer has said that the music (written in 1981) was prompted by his feelings of penitence during Lent, which in the Orthodox Church is very austere. The piece is in essence a very slow chromatic descent—a musical prostration. It begins and ends with an irmos. In between are twenty-three troparia (elements, like the irmos, of hymnography proper to the Canon) sung by a single male voice. The choir responds to each troparion alternatively in English, Greek, and Slavonic, with the phrase ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me’.
Love bade me welcome is an evocative setting, dating from 1985, of the poem by George Herbert. It evokes Bulgarian chant in its rich melodic line accompanied by an ison, and the simple harmonized repertoire of the Russian Church in the chord sequences at the ends of the three sections; but in its sensitivity and reticence (a reticence which in the end only intensifies the conveying of the words) it is unquestionably English. So too is The Tiger (1987), a companion piece to The Lamb. The music nevertheless responds to Blake’s images in a more obvious way than that of The Lamb: it has a pulsing, surging energy appropriate to the tiger, and a dazzling range of colour. Particularly splendid is the music for ‘When the stars threw down their spears’, which is followed immediately by a masterly musical reminiscence of The Lamb at ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’.
Eonia (1989) is a valedictory tribute to the painter, the late Cecil Collins. Tavener writes that he opened the collected works of the Greek poet Seferis and found the haiku ‘To Yiasemi’ (‘The Jasmine’) while talking on the telephone to Mother Thekla. He read it out and she continued in English and Slavonic—‘it was almost like “dictated” writing’, the composer has said. The music is of extreme delicacy and transparent simplicity, like the text. Tavener asks for it to be sung ‘with unearthly stillness and purity; with no “expression”’. In this it is, like much else in Tavener’s work, as spiritually transparent as an ikon.
Ivan Moody © 1991