In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, & the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate & speak with a markedly similar manner & tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion & strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) & Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones & string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) & ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more
In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try and make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet and a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas and Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration and appraisal of both composers’ work.
It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent & Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, & in some ways listening to John Cage’s 4’33” on repeat would seem to be the most appropriate thing to do. However, i’ve opted instead for a work from a composer whose music usually leaves me spluttering & fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, & is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets & a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, & put simply, the piece is (in Tavener’s words) “a meditation on the different states of dying”, but Tavener’s deeper inspiration comes from the four states of the self as conceived by a particular school of Hinduism: a waking state, a dream state, a condition of deep sleep, & “that which is beyond” (Tavener’s extensive programme note can be read here).
Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity & counterpoint, although—bearing the title in mind again—the overall direction is one of decline. The work uses five basic ideas that shift between the quartets: rapid semiquaver tremolos, accented quintuplets, undulating quaver trills, heavy but quick repeated note passages & slow, drawn-out melodies that employ various ragas (but which for the most part sound like conventional modes). From the second movement on, Tavener progressively thins out the texture as well as introducing a sixth idea, a melody with mobile pitch order & unspecified rhythms. The conclusion of each of the first three movements is marked with a short episode that requires the players also to chant as they play; the word ‘soham’ is used twice, while the third movement closes to ‘om’. Read more
Right, where were we? Saturday 3 September brought the last of the Proms’ Matinee concerts from the Cadogan Hall, each of which has featured contemporary music prominently. This final occasion was no exception, including works by Tippett and Sofia Gubaidulina, and presenting the first UK performance of John Tavener‘s Popule meus. The work bears a similarity to one of Tavener’s most well-known pieces, The Protecting Veil, also scored for solo cello and strings, augmented here by a prominent role for timpani; it was performed by the Britten Sinfonia with the solo part taken by Natalie Clein. Tavener’s title, Popule meus (‘O my people’), is a reference to the Reproaches, one of the most poignant texts to be sung during Holy Week, in which God puts humanity on the spot about their wholesale rejection of Him. It takes place at a time of great solemnity on Good Friday, and becomes one of the most challenging moments in the Christian year. As such, it is in every way the complete opposite of Tavener’s piece, which strives for tragedy, but ends up merely tragic. Read more