John Tavener: Alchemy of the Ancient and the Modern

By Bradley Bambarger <1999>

For someone convinced that secular humanism is the acme of Western culture, the music of John Tavener can be a tough sell. In theory, the neo-medievalisms of his work, the ritual and repetition aimed to glorify the Russian Orthodox Church, have the potential to cloy as much as enchant. The contradictions in the man also mystify: ethereal devotion and an esoteric, pre-Renaissance ethos on one hand, sports cars and glossy advertisements on the other.

Again, that is in theory, because in practice, Tavener’s best work can touch the heart like that of few composers. For many listeners, ideology goes by the wayside when The Protecting Veil or Song for Athene are in the air. His music seems to bypass constructs of intellect to tap a well of unconscious emotion. (Or as he is wont to say: It aims at the “intellective organ of the heart.”) And to spend time with John Tavener the man is also to see past the public image that has been forged both with and without his acquiescence.

A hereditary heart condition has rendered the 55-year-old Tavener physically frail, contributing to the sense of otherworldliness about him. And in spiritual and aesthetic matters — for him, often one in the same — he subscribes wholeheartedly to his Orthodox mentor, Mother Thekla. Yet for all his monkish traits, Tavener’s surroundings are far from hermetic. Crossing over the threshold into his Sussex home, one can trip over the toys of his two young children, and in the midst of an interview, their cries and laughter and the attentions of his wife of seven years, Maryanna, are never far away. Tavener likes good red wine, and in conversation, he is as likely to enthuse over the jazz profundity of John Coltrane or the pop wit of Randy Newman as he is the verities in Byzantine chant and late Stravinsky. Contrary to the often one-dimensional media portrait of him, Tavener is widely cultured, inquisitive and often very funny. After all, this is a man who hung out with John Lennon in his bright-light days in the swinging ’60s.

Still, Tavener can be that Tavener, the ascetic of icons and incense. I first experienced the music on his new Harmonia Mundi album in London last summer via a first edit on a CD-R, listening on headphones in a South Kensington hotel room. The immediate effect on me of Eternity’s Sunrise — a setting of William Blake and the album’s title work for soprano Patricia Rozario and the Academy of Ancient Music under Paul Goodwin — was overwhelming: The piece wrung tears from my eyes. I knew the work was dedicated to the late Princess of Wales and that I was staying not far from her old neighborhood, which no doubt contributed to the sense of poignancy in the music. And I was tired and far from home. But more than anything, my emotions were elicited by Tavener’s nearly artless choice of tones and the touching fragility of the work-in-progress performance.

In expressing my appreciation for the upcoming disc, I relayed this little anecdote to Tavener. Although obviously pleased that I responded to the music emotionally, he seemed a bit perplexed that my feelings hadn’t had a religious impetus. That was how it went for the rest of the afternoon and in a subsequent talk, our exchange often coming to the same ends through different means. And so it is, I think, with the great secular audience for Tavener’s music: You don’t have to be singing from the same choir book to be in harmony with his muse.

“Not Just Mechanics, but Metaphysics”

Eternity’s Sunrise comes with companion premieres of comparable intensity, revolving around themes of love, death and the ineffable beyond. There is the aptly named Song of the Angel, a feature for Rozario and estimable Academy leader/violinist Andrew Manze; the deeply moving Funeral Canticle (which Tavener wrote for his father) and poetic Petra: A Ritual Dream, with chorus and baritone George Mosley; and the serial-but-shimmering Sappho: Lyrical Fragments (recast from 1980), with Rozario and soprano Julia Gooding. Tavener says the collection is his favorite recording of his music thus far.

Indeed, even after a host of artistically and commercially successful Tavener recordings, Eternity’s Sunrise seems somehow special. Aside from the ideal juxtaposition of pieces, the allure of the disc comes from the composer’s acute response to the Baroque-era instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music — as well as the players’ sensitive fulfillment of his charge. Like such groups as viol-consort Fretwork and vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble, the Academy seems to be a particularly inspired vessel for contemporary composition that seeks to channel age-old values.

The genesis of the Eternity’s Sunrise album came with the Academy of Ancient Music’s commission of the piece to mark the 25th anniversary of the ensemble’s modern incarnation. Tavener’s delight in the Baroque colors of the group — with its gut strings, lute and archaic winds and percussion — led to his working with Goodwin to adapt the other works for the Academy, which recorded the set last summer at London’s Temple Church. “I really was staggered by the Academy’s sound,” Tavener says. “Like the sound of a woman’s voice without vibrato, the sound of gut strings is very sensual. It has this quality of longing that is almost erotic, in the Greek sense of the word eros. But there was also something else about the Academy: They took a great interest in the material — they wanted to know what the music was about. Paul Goodwin wasn’t just interested in the mechanics of the music but its metaphysics. That’s rare among conductors, I think.”

Goodwin returns the compliment, saying: “There is a true story to John’s music. It is deeply personal, and I don’t think you can say that about a lot of composers. Some people have accused him of being overly prolific or facile — comparing him to Telemann, whom I think was a great composer, by the way — but when you spend time with him, you can see how deeply he feels and believes in every note he writes.”

Eternity’s Sunrise is only the first piece Goodwin plans to commission from composers as a means of providing a living complement to the Academy’s Baroque and Classical-era repertoire. “I think the old and the new go very well together — they shed light on each other,” Goodwin says. “The pieces that I’m interested in the Academy performing are those that are textural and colorful rather than overtly virtuosic, because virtuosity is something that a modern symphony orchestra can get across far better. In John’s case, our period instruments have a softer, more complicated sound that gets him closer to folk music, which is where I think he would like to be sometimes.”

The Tavener/Academy of Ancient Music venture was a creative collaboration, with the composer even re-composing passages at the recording sessions to fully exploit the group’s strengths. “John is a modest man who is very open to ideas,” Goodwin explains. “That made it a lot of fun for the band, since it’s a bit difficult to work with Bach or Handel on a piece. John was taken with the theorbo, so he worked to make the most of our excellent theorbo player, Bill Carter, just as he writes to suit the remarkable voice of Patricia Rozario, his favorite singer. And that harks back to the manner of Bach and Handel, as they wrote especially for the musicians at their disposal.”

Tavener is already working on a new piece for the Academy, Total Eclipse, to be premiered next summer in St. Paul’s Cathedral as part of the City of London Festival (and also to be recorded by Harmonia Mundi). A processional cantata based on the story of the conversion of St. Paul, Total Eclipse features an alchemy of ancient and modern instruments. Among the modern is the obbligato saxophone of John Harle, yet his timbre still has something primal about it, Tavener says: “John’s saxophone has such a pure tone that it seems very old. I don’t know anything on Earth that sounds quite like that.”

In concert programs, Goodwin has been pairing Eternity’s Sunrise, Song of the Angel and Sappho with early-Baroque pieces by Purcell. He plans to complement Total Eclipse with Handel, whose music has been a revelation for Tavener. Although he has long been enamored of the Bach cantatas, such Handel oratorios as Saul strike him as even more divine in their way. “Handel has an almost Sophoclean approach to tragedy that I am quite drawn to,” Tavener says. “And he isn’t as cerebral as Mozart. I played through Act I of Le Nozze Di Figaro on the piano recently, and every note is perfect. Handel is less perfect but more spontaneous, with a strong sense of the feminine. True, he can be boring, but at his best, Handel is what Beethoven said he was, ‘The master of us all.’ And I like what Wagner said about him, that ‘Of all composers, he is the one who draws blood’.”

“Racing Against the Clock”

Although in a different vein, drawing blood is perhaps the metaphor to use for Tavener’s work ethic. He is indefatigable, composing both in his small but light-drenched studio at home and, most effectively, on regular retreat in Greece. But even at his prodigious pace, he still isn’t working as many long hours as he would like, under doctor’s orders. “When I’m not working, I feel as if my umbilical cord with God is cut,” the composer says, adding that since his heart problems became apparent in the early ’80s, he has been “racing against the clock” in a sense.

By facing the deaths of loved ones in recent years as well as his own looming mortality, Tavener has become so familiar with the transience of life that his work speaks to that issue with uncommon eloquence. Perhaps fittingly, the place of Song for Athene (originally written for the death of a young family friend) in the funeral service of the Princess of Wales made Tavener one of the most famous composers in the world. “The phone was ringing off the hook — it was mad,” he recalls. “Of course, it was a great honor for my music to be in the service. I didn’t know Diana, but I know and admire Prince Charles — and I grieved for him… The public’s emotional reaction was so extraordinary, particularly for an Anglo-Saxon country. We are lost in a way here. It sounds dreadful to say, but her death did bring good in that it touched people. They needed touching.”

As Tavener delineates in the lovely CD booklet to Eternity’s Sunrise, the original ideas for the title piece came to him with his father’s passing but coalesced with the Academy of Ancient Music commission — which came just after Diana’s death. “There is no such thing as accident or coincidence,” Tavener insists, so the piece became a paean to an ephemeral paradise on earth — “the mirror of the eternal world” — and was dedicated to the memory of the Princess. For the sublime Blake text (“To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour/He who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity’s sunrise”), Tavener devised an analogous spatial setting: Rozario’s voice representing Earth and set at ground level, the tolling hand bells representing angels and put a floor above in a mezzanine, and the chamber ensemble representing heaven up high in a balcony.

Following the first performance of Eternity’s Sunrise last summer at St. Andrew’s Church in Holburn, several young people approached Tavener to express their regard for the music. “They said the music had an ‘ecstatic sorrow’,” Tavener recalls, “and I was staggered that they used those very words. Because when I go to Orthodox Church during Holy Week or to the veneration of the saints near my home in Greece, tears will come — but not tears of anguish. I’ve always thought of the feelings as ‘ecstatic sorrow’.”

Beyond the concentrated Eternity’s Sunrise and Song for Athene, some of Tavener’s finest extended works have been written as a balm for grief, including the gripping Akhmatova Requiem (whose 1979 BBC Proms premiere performance could be heard on a disc in Carlton’s BBC Radio Classics series, now sadly out-of-print) and the monumental cantata Eis Thanaton, a work Tavener wrote on the passing of his mother (available on an outstanding Chandos album led by Richard Hickox). The three-hour cori spezzati spectacle The Apocalypse, which Tavener sketched while awaiting heart surgery and was premiered at a Proms concert in 1994, has yet to be recorded.

As with the haunting Funeral Canticle, Tavener wrote . . .Depart in Peace in memory of his father. A folk-inflected setting of the Greek “Song of Simeon” for Rozario and violinist Clio Gould, the work appears on a disc from Gould’s BT Scottish Ensemble issued last year via the Linn label. (Justly lauded in the pages of Gramophone, that album also includes My Gaze Is Ever Upon You for solo violin and tape, plus Tears of the Angels, an instrumental version of Song of the Angel.) Other standouts in the raft of recent Tavener recordings include the hit Sony disc of The Protecting Veil with Yo-Yo Ma (whom Tavener praises for his “noble, almost iconic” interpretation), which adds to Steven Isserlis’ near-definitive, Gramophone Award-winning take on the piece and other new versions from Telarc, Naxos, Carlton and Tring’s Royal Philharmonic collection.

There are hints that Decca could make an album of Tavener’s “Greek”-themed pieces, to include the short vocal work The Hidden Face (premiered at last year’s Proms with countertenor Michael Chance) and Agraphon, one of Tavener’s favorite of his pieces and one that has Rozario draw on Indian traditions of microtonal singing. And according to leader Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars — another early music ensemble with an affinity for Tavener (and one of the first groups of any kind to issue an all-Tavener collection, in 1984 on Gimell) — plan to make another recording of pieces by the composer in the not-too-distant future. In November, the Tallish Scholars premiered In the Month of Athyr at its 25th anniversary concert at the National Gallery. For chorus and narrator (a role fulfilled by rock-star Sting at the premiere), the piece is in the midst of becoming part of a larger work in tribute to the Greek poet Cavafy.

Although afflicted with writing blocks early in his career, Tavener has had a clear vision of his work since he “embraced tradition” with such pieces as 1972’s Bach-inspired Ultimos Ritos. Several recent works have yet to be recorded, and there is a handful of world premieres on the way. Tavener is completing The Fool for the theatrical troupe the Gogmagogs (for whom he originally wrote Petra: A Ritual Dream). And conductor Richard Hickox will debut Tavener’s grand oratorio Fall and Resurrection (dedicated to Prince Charles) next January as the new century’s first concert in the renovated St. Paul’s Cathedral. A concert at New York City’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral this spring featured the U.S. premiere of the dervish dance The Repentant Thief, as well as In the Month of Athyr with Tavener’s longtime friend Mia Farrow as narrator. Then there is The Toll Houses, a “metaphysical pantomime” to a libretto by Mother Thekla, who also wrote the text to Tavener’s sacred opera Mary of Egypt. The Chilingirian String Quartet has already premiered D’odia, a quartet drawn from The Toll Houses, and the full work may debut at the Proms in 2000, with Rozario in the lead.

With Rozario’s clarion sound in his mind’s ear, Tavener has written nearly all his vocal works for her. To hear Rozario embody the title role in Mary of Egypt or intone the six striking Akhmatova Songs (accompanied by Steven Isserlis) is to know why Tavener says, “Patricia understands my music on a deeply intuitive level. She immediately gets to the heart of anything that I write. I suppose we’re like Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, except that we don’t live together.”

“The Problem with the West…”

On top of all his composing, Tavener is writing The Music of Silence: Composer’s Testament, a book to be published early next year by Faber & Faber. Let’s hope it retains something of the man’s humor, as well as his flair for the controversial quip. Tavener says the text will include material on his upbringing, religious icons, experiences in Greece and the composers to whom he feels closest, along with a section that will offer his critique of artistic modernism — summed up by his polemical statement, “The problem with the West is that it has far too great a faith in the human mind… In too many ways, the West has been in the musical Dark Ages since plainsong.”

Tavener has other strong opinions. For him, the strict, smooth-toned late-Renaissance polyphony of Palestrina is far “too Roman Catholic.” And although he enjoys the earlier Flemish genius Josquin des Prez more, Josquin’s music — “like Renaissance painting” — is rife with “ego-driven intellectualism,” Tavener insists. “To me, Josquin is the Thomas Acquinas of music. You tend to dissect him, and sacred art should always dissect you.” Also, to Tavener, “Tchaikovksy is a greater talent than Mahler.” And yet “Webern is a mystic not a modernist,” he says, rather mystifyingly. “People like Pierre Boulez took his surface skill and not his inner life.”

Although greatly impressed by “the frozen noise” of Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli and Messiaen’s Chronocromie (an influence you can hear in some of his larger pieces), Tavener says that his enthusiasm for such works has waned. While admiring the craft, he still finds much Messiaen “ultimately empty” and the products of “the Western intellectual kitchens” (Boulez, Ligeti, etc.) spiritually enervated and too similar. In an oft-stated epigram, Tavener says, “There is more love in one song by Randy Newman than in the collected works of Elliott Carter.” And on home ground, Tavener compares Harrison Birtwistle with Francis Bacon: “They both have an integrity to their work, but they are best at representing hell, and I’m just not interested in the subject matter. Depictions of hell are certainly popular — Bacon sells for a good bit more than a painter like Cecil Collins — but representing paradise is a far greater and more attractive challenge.”

With his esteem for the medieval concept of craft, of music to accompany life’s rituals, Tavener has become increasingly ill-disposed to abstract music. “Art for art’s sake has gone on for too many innings, to use a cricket term,” he says. The idea of pop music often better suits his populist leanings: “At least pop is connected to the everyday, although most of it is just connected to the genitals.” One of Tavener’s few kindred spirits among contemporary composers is the Estonian Arvo Pärt. “I don’t love all his music unreservedly, but Tabula Rasa took me by storm — it is such a deeply tragic piece, in an almost classical sense,” he says, adding in that amusingly antithetical way of his: “Arvo and I also have a certain passion in common: cars.”

As an avant-traditionalist, Stravinsky is that rare thing for Tavener: a secular spiritus rector. He frequently quotes the man and refers to his works, and he even has a lovely Petrushka-esque painting by Vera Stravinsky, the composer’s wife, hanging in his living room. Stravinsky’s early, “primordial” works are a passion for Tavener but his later sacred serialism even more so. “If I were fitter, my conducting ambition would be to lead Stravinsky’s Threni and Canticum Sacrum in Salisbury Cathedral,” Tavener says. “Stravinsky was the only composer able to transubstantiate 12-note technique, to take that man-made method and make of it something sacred.”

Exalting the ideals of simplicity and humility in his words and music, Tavener’s credo seems more East than West. Even such totems as Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis don’t suit his worldview. “There is no denying that the Missa Solemnis is an extraordinary piece of music, but all that ego and railing against God embarrass me,” he says. “It truly is humanism run amok. Sufi music actually says more to me. Once I was lying very ill in Damascus, and I heard a beggar play a ney flute outside my window. Just listening to the ney made me feel better. If someone had been playing the Missa Solemnis, I probably would have died.”

John Tavener — Ten Albums

…Depart in Peace; My Gaze Is Ever Upon You; Tears of the Angels. Patricia Rozario, soprano; BT Scottish Ensemble; Clio Gould, violin/director (Linn)

Eis Thanaton; Theophany. Patricia Rozario, soprano; City of London Sinfonia and Bournemouth Symphony; Richard Hickox, conductor (Chandos)

Eternity’s Sunrise; Song of the Angel; etc. Andrew Manze, violin; Patricia Rozario, soprano; Julia Gooding, soprano; George Mosley, baritone; Choir & Orchestra of the Academy of Ancient Music; Paul Goodwin, conductor (Harmonia Mundi)

Innocence; Song for Athene; etc. Patricia Rozartio, soprano; Westminster Abbey Choir; Martin Neary, director (Sony Classical)

Last Sleep of the Virgin; Hidden Treasure. Chilingirian Quartet (Virgin Classics/EMI)

Mary of Egypt. Patricia Rozario, soprano, among other vocal soloists; Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble; Lionel Friend, conductor (Collins)

The Protecting Veil; Britten: Cello Suite №3. Steven Isserlis, cello; London Symphony Orchestra; Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor (Virgin Classics/EMI)

The Protecting Veil; Wake Up… And Die. Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Baltimore Symphony; David Zinman, conductor (Sony Classical)

The Repentant Thief. Andrew Marriner, clarinet; London Symphony Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (Collins)

Svyati; Akhmatova Songs; The Hidden Treasure; etc. Steven Isserlis, cello; Patricia Rozario, soprano; Moscow Virtuosi (RCA Red Seal)

(Originally published as the May 1999 cover story of Gramophone magazine. John Tavener died in 2013 at age 69.)

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