Skip to main content
Read page text

SIR JOHN TAVENER

L A R G E

I N A

, N

/ R E X

’ P H O T O S

W O R K E R S

:

P H O T O G R A P H Y

of Lisieux and the spiritual states through which she passed, ends in an ecstatic outpouring of love for Christ. This was hardly the stuff of conventional opera, and when it was finally performed, in 1979, it was a critical failure. The work’s long gestation accompanied a musical and spiritual crisis, and Tavener retained a particular dislike for the work for many years (‘except for the Slavonic Alelluias at the beginning and the end’, he always told me), though he later believed that it had been misunderstood and should be revived.

spirituality: the magnificent Orthodox Vigil Service (1984, first performed, liturgically, at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, combining Orthodox clergy and the cathedral choir under Francis Grier), the cantata Eis Thanaton (1986, one of several works in memory of the composer’s mother), the monumental Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987), and, most particularly, the transcendentally beautiful cello concerto The Protecting Veil, representing ‘the unending song of the Mother of God’, which brought Tavener’s name once again before the wider public.

As he came out of that crisis, renewed by his conversion to the Orthodox faith, he was writing music that seems transitional, such as the cello concerto Kyklike Kinesis and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (both 1977). It was with the remarkable Akhmatova: Requiem that the breakthrough came, with the (re)discovery of a glowing new lyrical style, even though it is still built on 12-note rows and sets some of the darkest poetry imaginable. In fact, the premiere, at the Proms in 1981 under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, was another critical failure – but the critics this time spectacularly failed to spot a masterpiece, as one may fortunately gauge from the BBC recording issued much later. One of the ways in which Tavener was able to exploit this new lyricism was through his collaboration with The Tallis Scholars, who had recently extended their repertoire to include medieval Russian Orthodox music. The resulting final version of Funeral Ikos (1981) and, especially, the utterly transparent The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete made a tremendous impact, and the fact that they were sung by a vocal ensemble of such precision and timbral purity made them the more impressive. With Ikon of Light (1984), simultaneously austere and radiant, Tavener’s creative powers were again in full flow. The next few years saw an outpouring of works inspired by Orthodox

The success of this work paved the way for such ambitious works as the opera Mary of Egypt (1991) and the vast oratorios The Apocalypse (1993) and Fall and Resurrection (1997), all of which deal very directly with Orthodox theological themes. Lamentations and Praises (2000), written for Chanticleer, was the last large-scale work to do so; by this point, Tavener had begun to feel able to draw on other religious traditions. Thus Lament for Jerusalem (2002) brings together elements from Christianity, Judaism and Islam in a ‘mystical love song’, Shûnya (2003) sets Buddhist texts, and the The Beautiful Names (2004), first performed to great controversy in Westminster Cathedral, sets the 99 names of Allah from the Quran. The high point of this approach was the eight-hour The Veil of the Temple (2002). With Towards Silence (2007), for four string quartets and Tibetan temple bowl, Tavener contemplated his own mortality; it is music that seems to come from beyond. He continued to produce works of immediately communicative lyrical beauty, yet was unafraid to engage with matters spiritual. He returned, at the end of his life, to his much earlier interest in the metaphysical poets: one of his last works was a setting of Henry Vaughan’s They are all gone into the world of light. And ‘world of light’ is surely an apt description for Tavener’s luminous legacy.

‘The supreme achievement of my life’ Caroline Gill reflects on the creation of Tavener’s all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple

‘I

t was the most desultory tea party you can possibly imagine,’ says Robin Griffith-Jones, master of the Temple Church in London, and one of the driving forces behind the commission of John Tavener’s all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple. ‘I went to get some brownies and, being slightly in awe of him, I forgot to get any plates. So I offered him a brownie, which crumbled all over his trademark white suit. I thought, “Well, there goes that commission”, but in fact his eyes lit up, and he giggled.’

That was the first step in a three-year process to realise the collaborative vision of Tavener, Griffith-Jones and Stephen Layton, who was at the time the Temple’s music director, which culminated in a work that Tavener described as ‘the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work I have ever composed’.

Tavener oversees the rehearsals in Temple Church the material that has gone before, escalating their pitch until the story has progressed from the rending of the veil in the holy sepulchre of Jerusalem to Mary Magdalene’s vision of the risen Christ. It was performed in London, New York and Amsterdam, but the premiere, in the Temple Church on Fleet Street in June 2003, was a proper vigil, starting at 10pm and ending with everyone involved emerging from the church into the summer sunlight at 6am the following day. The piece was influenced by the Temple’s round church – the Knights Templar’s own representation of the Holy Sepulchre – and is the seamless combination of music deeply influenced by Orthodox vigil services and the inspiration of a building created purely with the intention of representing the site central to conventional Christianity.

The Veil of the Temple (a title thought up by Layton, wanting to make a connection with The Protecting Veil – the piece written for Steven Isserlis that was similarly based on eight icons in the life of the Mother of God) is an all-night vigil of eight hours, constructed as a ‘prayer wheel’ of eight cycles, each repeating

At the time it was commissioned, it was planned as a possible all-night Prom, and as a certain attempt to put the music of the Temple Church back on the map after 80 years of languishing in the shadow of Ernest Lough and his infamous recording of ‘O for the wings of a dove’, but the events of 9/11 during its gramophone.co.uk

GRAMOPHONE JANUARY 2014 17

My Bookmarks


Skip to main content