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

by 5:4

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).

Particularly in the last few years, i’ve found Tavener’s predilection for heavily demarcated structures has repeatedly brought to mind Olivier Messiaen, for whom religious and indeed any musical utterance seemed to require regular gear-shifts as part of its modus operandi. But in the case of these two pieces it strikes me that there’s an additional connection. Later in his own life, Messiaen devised a compositional method which he termed ‘le langage communicable’, where each letter of the alphabet as well as various words and phrases (‘to be’, ‘God’) were assigned a fixed pitch, register and duration. Heard first in his 1969 organ cycle Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité, Messiaen’s use of the ‘langage’ to explore lengthy phrases of Biblical text, resulting in strange, extremely angular material, could not have been less ‘communicable’, although in its own way it remains entirely consistent with Messiaen’s overall compositional language. Tavener assigns his words to blocks of specifically articulated melody that interconnect with each other. In Gnōsis, for example, ‘sat’ is usually fixed to a 12-note row, ‘chit’ immediately follows, either as its retrograde or as a chromatic rising line; ‘ānanda’ in turn follows ‘chit’, always preceded by an anticipatory string phrase and answered by an alternate ‘sat’, now as descending grace notes; ‘Jesu’ uses a simpler, chant-like rising melody with a descending counterpoint in the flute. Separated from these by a brief violent string outburst is ‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’, presented as a wildly passionate (Tavener marks it ‘Apocalyptic’) set of mirror-image falling and rising phrases. These elements are used, always in this order, as structural blocks to assemble the piece, expanded through the use of simple canons, extended through modest development, everything underpinned by an omnipresent low C in the double basses. The result has a structural angularity akin to Messiaen’s ‘langage communicable’, as well as, over time, producing a curious kind of half-recognition due to the repetitive order in which these blocks of material are presented. Requiem Fragments works in exactly the same way. An initial ‘Om’ sits beneath an overlapping string motif; ‘Requiem eternam’ is assigned to a tightly canonic, triadic choral phrase; ‘te decet hymnus’ is more vigorous and always sung simultaneously with ‘Brahma’. The ‘Kyrie’ emphasises expansive melismas (harmonised tonally but with some unusual false relations), punctuated by weird episodes filled with dogged trombone crotchets, the last of which becomes “an explosion of joy and bliss”, a fortissimo rendition of the Sanctus.

Both pieces have obvious structural quirks, and in the case of Requiem Fragments, it’s manifested in a very obvious change in style halfway through. Following the Sanctus, Tavener then explores ‘Manikarnika’ and ‘Mahapralaya’ as lengthy exercises in canonic counterpoint, based on a line given first from a solo soprano. Everything about the material, both its treatment and the way it actually sounds, feels a long way from the first half of the piece, its harmonic scope made much more warm and rich as a result of the dense melodic interplay. But Gnōsis has an even more unexpected quirk; at the very end, having cycled through his blocks one final time, Tavener closes the work with a direct quotation from the start of the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. Tavener, again like Messiaen, had a lifelong love of Mozart: “Mozart finds beauty and truth in the most amazingly wretched and miserable human situations”, Tavener said a few years ago, “He alone among Western composers has most perfectly shown me that the true imagination is mystical experience: the creative power of the heart. […] Indeed, we have to conclude that Mozart was the medium of an archetype of beauty. […] The soul of Mozart was one, who through God, saw in God with the eye of God”.

Like so much of Tavener’s music, it’s a lot more easy to parse the overt technical processes at play than it is to resolve them into a coherent statement of religious expression. Perhaps that’s in part understandable, as the religious impulse is inevitably towards that which is simultaneously immediate yet elusive, and in many ways impossible to articulate. Yet as musical compositions it makes them challenging, and not always in the way the composer intended. Maybe there’s some assurance to be found in the struggle and the simplicity, but that’s not enough to imbue these pieces with much more than a hint of the all-encompassing reality from which they supposedly sprang.

Gnōsis was performed by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, with Michael Cox on alto flute and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jirí Belohlávek; Requiem Fragments was premièred by the Tallis Scholars directed by Peter Phillips. Full scores of both works can be viewed below.



John Tavener - Gnosis
  • Loved it! (30%, 8 Votes)
  • Liked it (37%, 10 Votes)
  • Meh (7%, 2 Votes)
  • Disliked it (11%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (15%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 27

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Full score

Requiem Fragments


John Tavener - Requiem Fragments
  • Loved it! (48%, 16 Votes)
  • Liked it (24%, 8 Votes)
  • Meh (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Disliked it (9%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (12%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 33

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Full score

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