John Tavener – Flood of Beauty (World Première)

by 5:4

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.

i said the work was massive, and an obvious part of that is manifested in the forces required: five soloists – soprano, baritone, cello, sitar and tabla – together with a large chorus and orchestra (including grand organ), all arranged in a number of groups dispersed around the audience throughout the performance space: four at the cardinal points as well as a group in the centre and a ‘Dome’ group. A massive work requires a massive text, and Tavener found it in the source that gave the piece its name, Saundarya Lahari (“waves of beauty”), supposedly written by 8th century Sanskrit theologian Adi Shankaracharya. The concepts contained within and emanating from its one hundred stanzas – all of which are used in the work – are parcelled out among the soloists, who take on symbolic roles: the soprano is ‘Being’ (sat), the baritone ‘Consciousness’ (chit) and the cello ‘Bliss’ (ānanda). In addition the sitar, which begins and ends the piece alone, symbolises eternity, its drone representing Om. The tabla soloist undertakes what must surely be one of the longest improvisations ever, beginning around 12 minutes in and continuing for the next 70 minutes.

Tavener mirrors the structure of the piece on that of Saundarya Lahari, arranged in five cycles comprising 7, 14, 21, 28 and 35 stanzas respectively. The cycles approach the words in a formulaic way, articulating the verses via pairs of phrases – usually given to the soprano and baritone soloists, singing in octaves – that generally follow the same rhythmic shape, leading towards a rapid quintuplet at its centre, slowing to a longer duration at the end. Each of these pairs has its own static harmony, which is sustained in the choral and orchestral parts, while the solo cello weaves a free-form melody (like a kind of mid-register descant) around the vocal lines. A typical pair of these phrases is shown below.

The way the harmony shifts from verse to verse, demarcated by small pauses, gives the impression of slight gear changes taking place, the cumulative effect of which, similar to other works i’ve explored in this Lent Series, takes on a simultaneous state of stasis and change, always varying in terms of harmony and orchestration yet each successive phrase essentially articulating a variation on the same theme. Within each cycle, and from cycle to cycle, there are also changes in terms of the expressive subtext. Cycle II, for example, includes the following wide range of performance instructions: “gradually flowering like a lotus – heavenly, celestial, abounding in Bliss”, “playful, erotic”, “with power and beauty”, “worn out, sluggish – sung in a grotesque style!”, “gradually becoming ecstatic in a hilarious way”, “Solemn – with dignity and majesty”, “Bathed in autumnal moonlight – with great sweetness”, “shining” and so on. They’re not the kind of directives one usually finds in contemporary music, and there’s actually something rather refreshing about such emotionally-charged suggestions as these. They bring to mind the wonderfully overblown (but highly appropriate) instructions that litter Scriabin’s third symphony Le Divin Poème, which includes such gems as “proud, more and more triumphant”, “divine, grandiose”, “with abandon” and the marvellous “tender, passionate, increasingly broad and powerful with transport”. Of course, as distinctions go, in Flood of Beauty these instructions are again often variations on the same theme, invoking an assortment of potentially different colourations of joy and beauty, though perhaps more for the sake of the performers’ collective mindset than for a tangible difference in the way the music actually sounds (not, i hasten to add, that that necessarily matters).

That being said, Cycle III – the wind parts of which which are initially marked “mysteriously veiled – a slightly dissonant haze of sound” – does involve a considerable shift in tone, both more rich and more mysterious despite its basic elements being essentially the same as before. As it goes on, there’s little sense of exact repetition, moving away from regularity towards a much more nebulous soundworld. In tandem with this, the formulaic pattern shown above is given to the choir, freeing up the soprano and baritone to explore more free and florid countermelodies, their phrases ending with rapid melismatic runs. This cycle also attains greater levels of radiance, to the point that it sounds practically transfixed, before petering into an amorphous pulsating. In contrast to Cycles I and II, it all feels very much more variegated. Cycle IV (“Thunderous, then rapt with Cosmic Beauty”) enters into by turns more diaphanous and aggressive territory, initially returning to a more clear sense of repetition though later developing a vague texture where multiple elements sound simultaneously, the soprano soaring above while drones underpin everything below. This cycle is also unique in being broken up in its latter stages by three outbursts labelled as ‘Fanfares’ that unleash some exuberance while uniting all the voices and players into an extremely dense, forceful mass. Cycle V includes perhaps my favourite instruction i’ve ever seen in a score – “With the grandeur of lordly elephants” – and as well as being the longest is also the most dynamically wide section in the entire piece. The enormous scale of Flood of Beauty is never more apparent than here (sometimes to its disadvantage; there are times when it almost seems to be more about mere scale than anything else), though this is countered by passages of considerable delicacy and tenderness, reducing to chamber-like passages of gentle calm. Having usually sung together, the soprano and baritone soloists now alternate, which is perhaps a small kindness on Tavener’s part considering how exhausted their voices must be by this stage.

Interposed between each of these cycles are additional sections titled ‘Līlā’, taking their name from the Hindu term for ‘divine play’ (the same term used in the title of Messiaen’s Turangalîla). Their role is two-fold, first providing a large vocal eruption, all the voices loudly articulating short repeating phrases in quin- and sextuplet rhythms to the accompaniment of wild glissando swoops. Tavener allows these sequences to become increasingly unruly as the work goes on; in later Līlās free improvisation plays a more prominent role, and by Līlā IV, the effect is clearly less about clear repetitions of a phrase than accumulating a huge mass of sound, given added impetus by the instruction, “Becoming awesome”. What follows in the second part of each Līlā are arguably among the most mesmerising and genuinely beautiful passages in the entire piece: long, slow meditations from the solo cello gently supported by soft gong and tam-tam strikes. The length of these meditations is for the most part directly proportional to the number of stanzas in the preceding cycle: each cello phrase lasts three bars – always 6/4 | 4/4 | 5/4 – and in the first meditation there are 7 of them, 14 in the second, 21 in third; the fourth meditation is for some reason truncated, consisting of 24 phrases instead of the expected 28. These sections are by far the most extreme contrast to everything else going on in Flood of Beauty, tapping into a vein of solemnity that sounds all the more serious in light of the preceding cycle(s) and especially the rambunctious first section of each Līlā.

i mentioned about the increasingly unruly nature of these Līlās, and the implied accumulative build-up of energy is detonated at the close of the work. In the concluding section – which isn’t actually titled ‘Līlā’ but functions in pretty much the same way –  Tavener first calms things through a chorale-like sequence, followed by a couple of minutes of blissed-out strings accompanied by gongs and tam-tams. Though becalmed, the music doesn’t feel final, instead seeming poised, waiting. With good reason: Tavener then lets fly a climax that needs to be heard to be believed: an enormous, explosive improvisational tutti (“Massive – wild and primordial”) that acts as a synthesis of all the solemnity and playfulness that have permeated everything that went before, as well as being simply a gigantic, orgasmic release – far from inappropriate considering the erotic and Tantric qualities Tavener intended the work to embody. The cello plays its final meditation (just 7 phrases this time), and the sitar returns in its role of eternity to usher not so much the end of the work as its fading into inaudible timelessness.

What, then, to make of Flood of Beauty? From the way i’ve introduced the piece, it might seem as if i actually don’t like it that much, but the truth is – i don’t really know what i think of it. My relationship with Tavener’s music has always been a tempestuous one; when i was still at school, he was one of the first contemporary composers whose music captured my imagination (with The Protecting Veil) – and at the same time he was also one of the first contemporary composers whose music deeply irritated me (with A Village Wedding). i like the fact that his music tends to push and provoke me in such a polarised way as this, and it’s fair to say Flood of Beauty has and continues to pull me in both directions. Ultimately, i’m glad it exists; like all the works i’ve explored in this year’s Lent Series the way it harnesses time and material over its large-scale duration is fascinating, incorporating or alluding to (and, to some degree, transcending) many stylistic or aesthetic tropes and notions of simplicity and complexity. Furthermore,it’s a fitting testament not only to John Tavener’s later work but more generally to the kind of overblown excesses that are so part and parcel of the most enthusiastic religious thinking and artistic expression. Above all, though, Flood of Beauty is a remarkable, grandiloquent oddity – maybe even a folly – that’s likely to enthral and exasperate people in equal measure – and a work like that is just fine by me. In any case, as with so much of Tavener’s work, whether or not we happen to like it is arguably completely beside the point.

The world première of Flood of Beauty took place at the Barbican on 28 September 2014, performed by soloists Allison Bell (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Natalie Clein (cello), Sheema Mukherjee (sitar), and Kuljit Bhamra (tabla), with Britten Sinfonia Voices and the New London Chamber Choir conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

Approximate timings
  • 0:01:26 Cycle I
  • 0:07:41 Līlā I
  • 0:10:18 Cycle II
  • 0:20:28 Līlā II
  • 0:24:47 Cycle III
  • 0:39:40 Līlā III
  • 0:46:09 Cycle IV (fanfares start at 1:05:34)
  • 1:09:36 Līlā IV
  • 1:16:00 Cycle V
  • 1:38:08 Conclusion

Full score
Volume 1 (includes programme note and full sung text)

Volume 2

Volume 3

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Hi Simon, I missed the memo. Are you no longer posting flac files? Thanks for all the work and I love the website and recordings.

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