Wednesday, November 13, 2013

John Tavener (1944-2013)

I've loved John Tavener's music ever since the first time I heard one of his pieces.  This was Funeral Ikos, sung at a commemoration for 9/11.  Here it's sung by the Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge; the words are taken from the Orthodox liturgy for "The Order for the Burial of the Dead (Priests)" - and they are stunningly beautiful.

Funeral Ikos (1981)

Why these bitter words of the dying,
O brethren, which they utter
as they go hence?

I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon,
and go hence.

But whither I go, that understand I not,
neither what shall become of me yonder;
only God who hath summoned me knoweth.

But make commemoration of me with the song:

But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn,
but none can impart aright.

Do they call to mind their own people,
as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those
who mourn them and make the song:

We go forth on the path eternal,
and as condemned, with downcast faces,
present ouselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness?
Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
There shall none of these things aid us,
but only to say oft the psalm:

If thou hast shown mercy
unto man, o man,
that same mercy
shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan
thou hast shown compassion,
that same shall there
deliver thee from want.
If in this life
the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee
shelter there,
and sing the psalm:

Youth and the beauty of the body
fade at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely,
and the parched throat is inflamed.

The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
And the other parts have become numb,
nor often say:

With ecstasy are we inflamed
if we but hear
that there is light eternal yonder;
That there is Paradise, wherein
every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ,
that all we may cry aloud thus unto God:

Later, I heard As One Who Has Slept, and suggested using it to our choirmaster; to my delight, we sang it one year for Easter.  Again, this is a liturgical text, from the Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday:
"As one who has slept the Lord has risen
And rising he has saved us. Alleluia."
Again, just remarkably beautiful; the man was really a genius.  The piece is sung here by the Westminster Cathedral Choir.

Here's an excerpt from a piece from today in the Guardian.
Tavener's is an essentially spiritual music, but in a much more intellectually fearless way than his detractors think. He wanted his music to tap into a region beyond conventional understanding – "I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God. That's what I have always tried to do" – but increasingly, his music offered doubt and darkness in its evocation of that unknowable vastness instead of a comforting musical palliative.

In 2007, Tavener suffered a heart attack in Switzerland that almost killed him. When he recovered, he was living in a new world of constant pain and shortness of breath. He found himself responding instinctively to music of terse difficulty that had previously not attracted him – late Beethoven, Karlheinz Stockhausen – and rediscovering the music that had inspired him to become a composer as a child, Stravinsky and Mozart.

When I last saw him, Tavener spoke of his recent music, such as his version of Tolstoy's nihilistic The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which was premiered at this year's Manchester Festival, as epiphanies of pain transfigured into music.

"Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way. Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I've got," he said. But Tavener seemed to find a joy in that difficult truth.

At its best, Tavener's music is a cathartic confrontation with the biggest of all life's questions. Yet, like the man who wrote it, the music invites you into its world with charm, gentleness, humility, and a twinkle in the eye.

"Song of the Angel" is not liturgical, but is beautiful:

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

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