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Although composing had already become his overriding passion, Tavener’s family was still expecting him to embark on a career as a concert pianist and to this end he was sent to play to Solomon, the legendary, but by then, paralysed pianist whose house had just been renovated by C. Tavener & Son. It was however, another of his grandfather’s clients who was to have the more lasting effect. She was Rhonda, Lady Birley, and it was at her home, Charleston Manor, that John was encouraged to flex his musical muscles and put on performances of his latest works. By the late 1960s the family firm had added The Beatles to its list of clients and was engaged in refurbishing their various houses and the offices of their Apple Corporation. The two Johns—Tavener and Lennon—met one evening in Kensington and, over dinner, played tapes of each other’s most recent music. So impressed was Lennon by what he heard that it was soon decided to record, on Apple Records, Tavener’s latest composition, The Whale, a work dedicated to Lady Birley but written for the London Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert.
The Whale certainly put Tavener and his music on the map and commissions started to come in from all sides. Most of these new works grew out of Tavener’s strong religious convictions which, at that time, were gradually, but inexorably, moving away from the teachings of the Western Church toward those of the East; he was finally received into the Orthodox Church in September 1977. As time went on, Tavener began more and more to incorporate into his own music the sacred tone systems used for the orthodox liturgy. The pieces he was then writing were predominantly vocal, but, in 1987, came The Protecting Veil for cello and string orchestra. Inspired by the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, the popularity this piece enjoyed did again for Tavener what The Whale had done for him some twenty years before; put him firmly in the public eye and made his music immensely popular.
He had been encouraged to write music for ‘the market place’, not just for the church, by Mother Thekla, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery at Normanby in Yorkshire, who by then had become his spiritual adviser, friend and librettist. One of the many rich fruits of the collaboration between Mother Thekla and Tavener has been the opera Mary of Egypt which, after a very long gestation period, was first performed in June 1992. The part of Mary on that occasion was taken by Patricia Rozario and it has been with this splendid singer in mind that Tavener wrote several more of his works.
A sufferer from Marfan's syndrome, a hereditary heart condition which affects people who are exceptionally tall and long-limbed, Tavener (who is six-foot-four) had to undergo extensive heart surgery in the spring of 1991. Already constantly preoccupied with his own mortality, this operation had the effect of increasing his daily compunction to write music—while there was still time. Death, however, has often provided him with the impetus to compose. Usually this has been the death of friends or relations but in the case of Tears of the Angels, it was the death and suffering of the people of the Balkans that occupied his mind.
Completed during November 1995 at Naldretts, his home in Sussex, this work was commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble, which, with Clio Gould as soloist, gave the first performance on 26 June 1996. In the score the composer has requested that the piece should be played ‘at the extreme breaking point of tenderness—in other words, totally beyond our compassion and beyond our comprehension, wrapped in a depth of inner silence of which we have no idea, state of being or emotion; a tender light piercing the agonizing darkness of the world. Also, a humility of which we have no idea because it is not rooted in a hypocritical or contrived deprecation of self, but in the blinding vision of God himself’. He also points out that ‘since we are human and not angels, the music can only be imagined by us’. In this work the solo violin represents the chief amongst the angels while the other violins are often asked to play ‘like tear drops’.
After many years of visiting Greece, a country with which he had fallen profoundly in love, Tavener eventually bought himself a house on the island of Evia and it was there, at Pigadaki on 5 June 1997, that he completed the work he was to call …Depart in peace… .This is a setting in Greek of the Song of Simeon, otherwise known as the Nunc dimittis, interspersed with Alliuatic antiphons. The word Alleluia is treated in three different ways. Firstly it emerges, syllable by syllable, from the string texture, then it is sung with tender longing almost as a hymn and finally ecstatically ‘like Middle-Eastern chanting’. As the piece progresses these antiphons lengthen and the Middle-Eastern one gets faster and faster. In between the Alleluias, the singer, with great humility and accompanied only by solo violin, tempura and cellos, gradually builds up the Song of Simeon—‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Tavener wrote this work to the ‘eternal memory’ of his father who had recently died and it was first performed at the Hellenic Centre in London by the Scottish Ensemble with Patricia Rozario and Clio Gould on 25 June 1998.
My gaze is ever upon you was also composed at Pigadaki in 1997. It is dedicated to Clio Gould who, with the Scottish Ensemble, had commissioned it. It was written in loving memory of Matthew Sullivan, a close friend of the composer who, he says, ‘would have loved the title because it could have referred to God, a tree or his wife’. This piece, for solo violin, with taped violin and string bass drone, pre-recorded in a resonant acoustic, is, in the words of the composer, ‘a series of sixteen gazes, moments and ecstatic breaths, written in Trinitarian guise’. These gazes, says Tavener, ‘are spontaneous reactions to people, to landscapes, to animals, to creeping things’. For several of them the composer has provided a short commentary:
No 3 – ‘Undergoing, as it were, the way of negation, forming no ideas’
No 4 – ‘Piercing light shines from his being’
Nos 5, 6 & 9 – ‘ecstatic breath’
No 6 – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…have mercy upon me, a sinner’
No 7 – ‘Leave me to die…dying…ecstatic, propelled by a new power transcendent, grace incarnate’
No 8 – ‘His whole body forms a dance of silent joy’
No 10 – ‘He has torn himself to shreds—broken open his whole person’
No 11 – ‘The moon, with its wondrous rays, has stolen my heart to you, all-holy one’
No 12 – ‘Light shines from his being’
No 13 – ‘Only you remain…invisibly escorted by the hosts of angels’
No 14 – ‘Divine play’
No 15 – ‘I do not wish or desire to live long—come, do your will in me’
No 16 – ‘God has seen: God has been seen’
To mark the end of each gaze and the beginning of the next, the string bass, acting as drone, produces a molto crescendo and diminuendo on the low C which is sounding throughout. In the very last bar of the piece the composer asks the violinist to sing the words of its title, ‘very purely and gently, whilst playing’.
Peter Avis © 1998
Saint Simeon, holding the infant God, the Divine in his arms, could now depart in peace…
…Depart in peace…
Saint Simeon, aged as he was, could indeed 'depart in peace', for the limit of this present life is not death. He was holding in his arms the one who has dispelled death. …Depart in Peace… was written in loving memory of my father. Eternal Memory—Kenneth.
My gaze is ever upon you is a series of sixteen gazes, moments and ecstatic breaths, written in Trinitarian guise—solo violin, with taped violin and string bass drone pre-recorded in a distant and ethereal manner. The music was written during two prolonged stays in my house in Greece. As far as possible, the gazes are spontaneous reactions to people, to landscapes, to animals, to creeping things—an attempt to create a theophany and an anthropophagy: to see God in everything, for everything that lives is holy.
Tears of the Angels is almost a contradiction in terms. Tradition tells us that angels do not weep. However, I was moved to give the piece this title because the music is dedicated to the suffering people of the Balkans.
Tears of the Angels is scored for strings and features solo violin playing in the extreme register. The overall impression is of unearthly stillness before the mysterious ways of God.
Sir John Tavener © 1997