John Tavener

John Tavener – Flood of Beauty (World Première)

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i’m bringing this year’s Lent Series to an end with the last large-scale work by one of Britain’s most strange and singular composers, John Tavener. Tavener died in November 2013, and in some respects it would be hard to go out with a bigger bang than with Flood of Beauty which, though composed many years earlier (between July 2006 and July 2007), only received its first performance in the autumn of 2014. At 104 minutes’ duration, the piece is significantly shorter than many of Tavener’s multiple-hour works – none more so than the 7-hour behemoth The Veil of the Temple (2001) – but the piece is nonetheless massive in its own right, and for reasons other than just its (still very lengthy) time-span.

In his later life, the nature and articulation of Tavener’s religious outlook became increasingly nebulous and non-specific, moving away from clear Orthodox inspirations to embrace other modes of thought and belief, ultimately favouring of a more Universalist mindset. In terms of the effect that this had on his work – from both compositional and listening perspectives –  i’m not sure it really made that much of a difference. As i’ve discussed previously, Tavener always tended to take a de facto approach to the presentation of religiosity in his work. Far from attempting to sonically contextualise his beliefs – for example, dramatising them, or at least giving them a kind of parabolic or allegorical quality – he instead presented them in an unequivocal, fait accompli fashion, likening this to the experiencing of entering an Orthodox church and being instantly surrounded and enclosed by decorative glory. In practice, the experience was usually akin to skipping over the first two volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy and leaping straight into the Paradiso; if transcendence is all you’re after then perhaps the result is satisfying enough – you get, in essence, what you came for – though one can’t help feeling that the culmination of Dante’s experience is so much more emotionally (and, if you like, spiritually) meaningful and relatable in light of the incredible journey to arrive at that point. Perhaps Tavener felt that the real world – the concert hall, and the audience sitting within it – was the context to which his music provided some kind of contrasting quasi-divine apogee. But for me, the way his music always tended to hit the ground running, so to speak – assuming rather than demonstrating; taking for granted rather than attempting to convince – seemed the epitome of preaching to the converted: perfect if you already shared his outlook; alienating and downright eccentric if you didn’t. This applies to a great deal of his work (and not only his, of course), both the more purely Orthodox as well as the later, more Universalist compositions, so from a listening perspective the only significant change in this regard is the sense that the music has undergone a shift from what we might conventionally regard as ‘sacred music’ to something less easily categorisable, though aesthetically sharing aspects of New Age music. In this respect, a title like Flood of Beauty is telling; it evokes… something, though what that something is is ill-defined and subjective. Read more

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

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i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

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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, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and 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’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and 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) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2014: Pärt & Tavener, A Candlelit Tribute to John Tavener

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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.
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John Tavener – Towards Silence (European Première)

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It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent and Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, and 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 and fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, and is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets and a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, and 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, and “that which is beyond”.

Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity and 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 and 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 and 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

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Proms 2011: John Tavener – Popule meus (UK Première)

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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 conducted by David Hill, 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

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