John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

by 5:4

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.

Despite this shift, for the most part Tavener’s musical method remained pretty constant, and numerous aspects of Cantus mysticus are instantly familiar. Simple, rhythmically bare melodic lines, unadorned, repeated with drones and used in contrary motion (a defining Tavener characteristic); equally simple chorale-like passages that progress as if within tightly confined harmonic bounds, not quite cyclic yet not exactly going anywhere either. So far, so conventional; these ideas comprise the opening few minutes of Cantus mysticus, establishing a typically Tavenerian soundworld. The work’s peculiarity lies partly in what follows. The composer’s concern in the work is with the ‘creative feminine’, which Tavener supplements with an injection of ‘lîla‘, referencing the Hindu concept of the creative sense of play exhibited by the divine (Messiaen also co-opted both the word and its idea in his Turangalîla). The way Tavener seeks to taps into this ‘play’ is unexpected and quite strange: first the music erupts, letting rip with loud, regular semiquavers – marked ‘like ecstatic birds’, though the music’s rhythmic regularity seems to render them too robotic to live up to that – followed by an extended, mostly un-notated improvisation from the solo clarinet, marked ‘very freely, in jazz style’. This occurs twice, followed by a gentle, weirdly transfixed four-bar coda that returns to the ideas from the start.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. There’s a part of me that finds this wilful rupture of Tavener’s trademark fait accompli tranquillity extremely agreeable, particularly as it’s done in such an ostensibly mischievous way (which of course ties in with the idea of ‘play’). The hammered out semiquavers are a decidedly odd way to aspire to ‘ecstasy’, and while the decision to introduce the superficial trappings of jazz suggests a complement being paid to the idiom by Tavener, at the same time it’s hard not to feel there’s a bit of a cop out being taken here, a kind of cheap and dirty stylistic cut-and-paste job. Yet, it again ties in with the connotations of ‘lîla’ and there’s something rather refreshing witnessing Tavener compositionally let go in this way. It’s a conflicting experience, and repeated listenings have annoyed, intrigued, confounded and – i must admit – delighted me in not quite equal measure, but enough to keep me coming back to the piece for another go on its very singular ride. One can ignore the vocal part, which simply sets a single line from Goethe – ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (“the eternal feminine draws us upward”) – along with two short lines that combine Dante’s phrase ‘vergine madre’ (“virgin mother”, from the opening of the last Canto of his Divine Comedy) with ‘Maha Maya’ (which Tavener ascribes to Hinduism but who seems to be the mother of Buddha) and ‘Maha Prajavati’ (apparently the Buddha’s maternal aunt and adoptive mother). So not so much a text as a pithy collection of innocuous maternal allusions; fair enough.

But the music: seriously, what is that about? If i’ve been able to conclude anything, it’s that theory and practice make all the difference. The UK première of Cantus mysticus was given at the 2008 BBC Proms, featuring soprano Patricia Rozario, clarinettist Mark van de Wiel and members of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Atherton. Rozario’s rendition of those madcap semiquavers, a litany of gloriously bizarre squawks, manages to make Tavener’s birds, if not exactly ecstatic, then at least delirious, and van de Wiel’s solos avoid pastiche in favour of a less stylistically-bound burst of pell-mell fireworks. Perhaps there’s a bigger demonstration of Tavener’s compositional consistency going on here: on the page, in the score, his music can often seem downright ridiculous; yet in performance, one way or the other, it tends to become something more.

Programme Note

Cantus Mysticus sets a text by Goethe concerned with the Eternal Feminine: Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan (The Eternal Woman draws us upwards). Many of my recent works have been concerned with meditation on the Creative Feminine which, according to esoteric metaphysics, reveals the ‘child of the soul’, and thus God.

The slow, contemplative and very intense opening of Cantus Mysticus leads gradually towards a ‘still centre’, with much use of ‘silence’. This is followed by an ecstatic celebration of the Divine Feminine – the Virgine Madre of Dante and Christianity, the Maha Maya of Hinduism, and Maha Prajavati of Buddhism. The Jazz-style passages for clarinet express Lîla, or Divine Play.

Cantus Mysticus is scored for B flat clarinet, soprano and strings (violins and cellos only).
— John Tavener

Full score

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Chris L

Hmmm…well, it’s certainly different from Liszt’s bit-of-a-piece of nearly the same name, but as good as, or better than? There’s still plenty of jury-deliberation ahead for this listener. There isn’t the protracted struggle that there is in the Liszt, to serve as (ostensible) justification, for a start…

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