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Song for Athene and The Lamb are just two of the highlights in this Winchester collection of some of Tavener’s most enduring—and endearing—choral music.
From 1972 until his death in 2013 John was a frequent visitor to Winchester, often at premieres of pieces composed for the Cathedral Choir. One of the most arresting was God is with us at the Carol Services in 1987 when the fine tenor soloist, as on this recording, was William Kendall. The text is adapted from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve. Before the first performance, John (as always) made very clear the kind of ‘Orthodox’ declamation he required from the soloist, as well as insisting on the purity and the stillness of the choral blend, especially during the pianissimos.
As with many of Tavener’s shorter choral works, God is with us has a disarming simplicity, but there is also very subtle harmony, as well as in this case a feeling of great anticipation—who else would have conceived (and brought off) the idea of the totally unexpected appearance of the full organ in as foreign a key as one could imagine? The thrilling sound of the Winchester organ also brings back memories for me of evenings in the seventies and eighties when the cathedral was closed and John would climb up to the organ loft and literally let loose on the full organ!
Two years earlier, in 1985, John had composed the unaccompanied Hymn to the Mother of God. What struck me at the time was the effect of the second choir singing in canon, three beats behind the first. The beautifully spaced (and repeated) opening chord—typical of John’s acute ear for choral sound—is immediately arresting, and what on paper may look like the blurring effect of the second choir entries is in fact magical. Following the telling silence after the rich F major chord at the end of the first section, the modulation to A flat major, with the chord repeated four times, immediately captures the words ‘O sanctified temple’, once again enhanced by the canon.
Love bade me welcome also dates from 1985 and was first sung at the Enthronement of Colin James as Bishop of Winchester. Here is an early example of the composer super-imposing a melody close to Orthodox chant over a drone-like bass. But it is no ordinary melody—the last three notes move unexpectedly, and yet feel inexorably right. It is this kind of sequence which convinces me that here was a composer of genius—others may have attempted to follow in John’s footsteps, but who else has found such inspiration?
And talking of inspiration, we then move to a much later work, They are all gone into the world of light, composed in 2011. Here is the composer’s poignant dedication: ‘The music came to me after attending the beautiful and moving funeral of Marianne Yacoub, wife of the eminent heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, who has been such a great support to me over many years.’ I find this one of Sir John’s most extraordinary miniature masterpieces. The musical language is entirely his own, thanks to the changing tonalities within the repeated melodies, and the haunting unison section, before dissolving into a canon at ‘Dear, beauteous Death!’ And yet, with the drone-like effect of the repeated bottom Cs in the bass part and the final resolution in the major key, this surely is a supreme example of John being inspired by the Orthodox chant he adored and the faith to which he so fervently subscribed.
Back in 1992 Sir John was commissioned by the Musicians Benevolent Fund to compose an anthem for the annual St Cecilia’s Day Festival Service, which rotates between St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. That year the festival was held at the Abbey, and John decided to use the building to maximum advantage to intensify the dialogue between the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement and the Virgin Mary’s awestruck reply. So in Annunciation the opening quartet, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’, was sung from high up in the Henry V Chapel at the East End of the Abbey, with the five-times-repeated response ‘Hail’ being sung fortissimo from the choirs in the quire stalls, with the organ. The next sequence, ‘The Lord is with thee’, intrigued me; how was the close harmonic movement of the tenors and basses in seconds going to sound? Well, it worked!—leading, in the composer’s words, to ‘a thunderous, awesome theophany’.
Four years later Sir John was commissioned by the Dean and Chapter of Winchester (when David Hill was Organist) to write an anthem for the ceremony when the Orthodox-inspired ikons in the Retroquire by Sergei Fyodorov were dedicated. With As one who has slept we are back to deceptively simple yet atmospheric harmonies. When the composer himself conducted this piece with the Westminster Abbey Choir in 1998 for ITV’s South Bank Show, everyone present could feel his intensity and just how moved he was by the text, taken from the great Liturgy of St Basil on Easter Saturday morning—full of awe, silence and expectation.
Four months earlier, at the funeral of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey, Song for Athene had made a huge impact, sung as the pall-bearers carried the Princess’s coffin to the West Door. It was composed in 1993, in memory of the young Greek actress, Athene Hariades, who had been killed in a cycling accident; the striking combination of texts had come from John’s spiritual adviser and mentor, the Orthodox nun Mother Thekla. Here is what the Times critic, Richard Morrison, wrote after the first performance in January 1994 at the BBC Ikons Festival celebrating John’s fiftieth birthday: ‘Tavener has set lines from Hamlet and from the Orthodox funeral service. The voices rise and fall over a drone. Then at the end, they turn majestically and movingly from minor to major. As in Bach’s ‘Crucifixus’, the meaning is unmistakable—something poignant, beautiful and truthful is expressed in fewer notes than the average pop song.’ The arrangement for upper voices and organ on this recording is by Barry Rose, who also arranged the next two pieces on the album.
A decade earlier, John had been inspired to set one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. The Lamb, composed for his nephew Simon on his third birthday, is another mini masterpiece. In just a few short phrases John found a way of matching the innocent symmetry of Blake’s verse with his own musical symmetry, through the use of patterns such as inversion and retrograde. There is also what John called the ‘love chord’ on ‘Lamb’ in the last line. Apparently, the work came to him ‘in a flash’ during a short car journey, as he was being driven home by his mother.
One of John Tavener’s special attributes was his ability to find something new and yet accessible to say about a familiar text, a notable example being his (third) setting of The Lord’s Prayer, originally composed for The Tallis Scholars in 1999. In the repeated descending phrase, as it comes to rest on the chord of the dominant seventh, he surely captured the mood of ‘hallowed’ to perfection.
Sir John was also an avid reader; he was forever exploring new texts, and he loved conversations with other artists, one of whom, Cecil Collins, became a great friend. It was for the unveiling of a stained-glass window, designed by Cecil Collins, in All Saints’ Church, Basingstoke, that John was commissioned to compose Angels. He decided to set Canon Keith Walker’s words quite simply, within the capability of the local choir, but with thrilling clusters of sounds on the organ.
The final five anthems in this collection come from The Veil of the Temple, the all-night vigil commissioned by the Temple Church in London. Here are the composer’s instructions: ‘The Veil is to be performed from dusk to dawn: a wake, anticipating the end of night and the approaching daybreak, transporting the audience from darkness to light, from death to rebirth. The libretto is based on evangelical texts by St John; the work’s goal is to unravel the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.’ First performed in 1992, The Veil of the Temple is in many ways a summation of John’s art, as he draws from an increasingly eclectic series of religious traditions, which became more and more important to him. What continues to strike me, as I listen again to The Veil, is on the one hand the beauty of the Orthodox-based chants, and on the other, the incredibly powerful cumulative effect as the music increases in complexity.
In each of the five anthems John found some of his most memorable melodies, the choir moving as one in characteristically rich block chords over drone notes. My own favourite is ‘Mother of God, here I stand’, with its ravishing falling intervals (the shape of the melody first heard at ‘radiant brightness’ is exactly the same as ‘Hallowed be thy Name’ in The Lord’s Prayer). In the outer sections of ‘O Mary Theotokos’, the reverent stillness turns to an ecstatic reverberation of the ornamented melody, in a canon reminiscent of the Hymn to the Mother of God.
To quote from Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s address at the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Sir John Tavener, held in Westminster Abbey on 11 June 2014: ‘John’s music is never weak, always strong, never merely harmonious, but always powered (even in that little masterpiece The Lamb) by dissonance and harmonic conflict, which resolves into concord. With him we suffer, and he leads us towards resolution.’ How privileged we are to have had in our time a composer of such immense gifts; one who, working against the grain of our secular age, communicated through music a true sense of the numinous. Laus Deo!
Martin Neary © 2019