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Tavener wrote the extraordinarily moving … depart in peace … following the death of his father. Written for soprano, violin, tampura and strings it features Eastern elements and a glittering setting of the Song of Simeon. Originally pronounced unplayable, Tavener's Trisagion was premiered by John Wallace in 1985 who recorded it with his own ensemble, The Wallace Collection. Written especially for them, Canty gave the world-premiere recording of Two Hadiths which explores the sonorities of the bray harp in meditative settings of the poetic sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The title work Ypakoë, a series of meditations on the death of Jesus, was specially written by Tavener for Elena Riu and originally premiered on her recording ‘Piano Icons For The 21st Century', which was a Gramophone ‘Critics' Choice'.
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.
… depart in peace …
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.
A purely instrumental composition by Tavener is quite an unusual thing, for most of his works involve the voice in one way or another. There are even some pieces in which instrumentalists are called upon to sing as well as play their instruments. Works do exist for solo piano, organ, cello viola, guitar and flute and there are one or two for standard chamber ensembles—flute and piano, string quartet, wind ensemble—not to mention a short one in memory of Stravinsky for the fascinating combination of two alto flutes, organ and handbells. This is one of three pieces written for brass ensemble. Composed in 1981, Trisagion was originally intended for Philip Jones and his famous brass ensemble but, according to Tavener’s biographer Geoffrey Haydon, Jones declared it ‘unplayable by a quintet of mere mortals’.
Its first performance, therefore, did not take place until November 1985, when it was played by Equale Brass, a group of ‘mere mortals’ led by John Wallace, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. In his note on the piece, Tavener explains that Trisagion is Greek for ‘thrice-holy’ and is also an important hymn in the Byzantine Church. He continues: ‘My short piece bearing this title falls into three main sections, the style of which is both solemn and festive. There are two brass groups which answer each other antiphonally. The material is rooted in Znamenny chant and Byzantine palindromes, both essential ingredients for any kind of radical rediscovery of the sacred or theophanic tradition in music.’
Two Hadiths was commissioned by Canty to premiere in York Minster in 2008 for the launch of the ‘Minster Quarter’ initiative. Hadiths are sayings by the Prophet Mohammed that are extra to the Koran, and many of them are poetic, almost visionary observations about the nature of the Almighty. When Canty first discussed the work and William Taylor’s collection of instruments, Tavener was immediately intrigued by the idea of the bray harp with its special resonating qualities and potential to evoke sitar-like sonorities. The result is a meditation that links the remote concept of the beauty of holiness with the awesome power of the act of creation.
Until the twentieth century, the Christian world was united by potent religious symbols. Despite the sometimes fierce divisions in doctrine and spirit between Catholic and Orthodox communities, and between them and the legions of rival Protestant sects, there were important ideas in common: the incarnation of Christ, his teachings, his suffering and death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
However, with the turn of the century this began to change. Religious education became less dogmatic, more liberal and in some places faded out altogether. Generations could grow up with only the vaguest notions of what Christianity was about. While some saw this as a tragedy, for others it was liberating. Anyone who felt the need for spirituality in their lives was free to seek it out in other religions or systems of belief; or ultimately if they chose Christianity, it was at least a genuine choice and not merely the result of social conditioning.
Works by Arvo Pärt, Peter Sculthorpe, Leoš Janáček and Tavener are, in their very different ways, products of this new spiritual freedom. The artists who created them sought their own truths, their own icons, finding and expressing them in ways which often set them apart from the cultures in which they lived and wrote. Tavener progressed from complex modernism to a simpler style of composition, whose power to move listeners is still surprising. Tavener found a deep well of inspiration in the music and teachings of the Orthodox Church. He described some of his later works as ‘Ikons’, music composed to draw us to the contemplation of divine goodness, or to the central Christian teachings. Ypakoë, written for the pianist Elena Riu, refers to the words of the angels to the disciples who came to Christ’s tomb on the morning of the resurrection: ‘Why seek ye among the dead, as though He were a mortal man?’ The five movements approach the central theme of Christ’s death and resurrection from different devotional angles: grief and rejoicing, praise and penitence. Again, simple chant-like figures dominate the music, with the pianist’s two hands often singing out in counterpoint, and the occasional delicious dissonant ‘scrunch’ as the modes collide. In ‘The Lord awoke us as one that sleepeth’ the right hand decorates the left hand’s chanting with high trills, a sound suggesting the wings of hovering angels, or the response of heaven to earthly prayer. As serene as Ypakoë is, the final section is open-ended; the music seems to break off mid-phrase as though Tavener were telling us that perfection is not to be sought in this world.
Linn Records © 2014