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’.
from notes by Ivan Moody © 1991