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ClassicsOnline Home » TAVENER: Song for Athene / Svyati
By Nicholas Rast
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"John Tavener's choral music is inspired by his Orthodox faith, and on this disc the choir of St John's College, Cambridge, eloquently communicate the music's timeless spirituality. They capture the atmospheric stillness of God is with us and the reverence of the Song for Athene, made famous by its performance at Princess Diana's funeral.
"In two Blake settings the singers highlight Tavener's response to word-painting, neatly opposing the Lamb's purity and the Tiger's fearfulness; in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis they sensitively illustrate the composer's richly coloured blend of Eastern and Western liturgical traditions.
"Hypnotically contemplative renderings of Love bade me welcome, As one who has slept, the Lord's Prayer and Svyati (intended to accompany the coffin's journey from the church to the grave) convey feelings of mortality with touching humility."
John Tavener (b. 1945)
Song for Athene / Svyati and other choral works
Tavener studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir Lennox Berkeley and
David Lumsdaine. In 1968 his dramatic cantata The Whale took its
audience by storm and led to his music being recorded on The Beatles' Apple
label. Since that time Tavener has continued to show an originality of concept
and an intensely personal idiom, making his a voice quite separate from those
of his contemporaries. Over the years, the contemplative side of his nature has
led him in more spiritual directions and his commitment to the Russian Orthodox
Church, which he joined in 1977, is now evident in all his work.
an interview published in his recent book The Music of Silence, Sir John
Tavener wrote. "If you listen to the music of the East, somehow the divine
is already there. It is - which is a parallel with the eternal 'I am."'
What this means in practical terms is that Tavener, in aiming at writing music
suitable to convey the theology and the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, to
participate in some way in that "eternal 'I am"', creates music of
what one might call "dynamic stasis". In other
the long phrases of eastern chant (of various traditions), the harmonic
transparency and the stillness of his work runs counter to what the composer
sees as the more "active" spirit of western sacred music; nevertheless,
Tavener's western background inevitably and naturally plays its part, and the
unique sound of the fusion of these two is characteristic of all of the works on
God is with us, which has the subtitle “A Christmas Proclamation", is
a good example of this approach. Written in 1987, its text is an adaptation of
part of the service of Compline, as celebrated on Christmas Eve in the Orthodox
Church. its powerful chant-like melodic lines celebrate the incarnation using
words originating in the Old Testament prophecies. Essentially a simple three-part
structure, refrains framing a highly ornamented central tenor solo, there is an
unexpected al works transformation at the end, when Tavener introduces the - western!
- organ to reinforce the massive sound required from the choir announcing the
birth of Christ.
Song for Athene, which has become one of Tavener's best known pieces since
it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, takes as its text a mixture
of Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet) and the Orthodox funeral service.
The work, originally written in 1993, is typical of Tavener's rich choral
sound, its peals of "Alleluia" increasing gradually in volume and impinging
further on the listener's consciousness. In both these works, the choral
writing carries resonances of renaissance polyphony (though it is far from contrapuntal
in construction) and of the English cathedral tradition but transmutes them
into something quite different, and quite recognisably by Tavener.
Love bade me welcome, a setting of George Herbert made in 1985, in spite of its
evocation of Orthodox chant in its melodic style, is also characterized by a very
English reticence, eschewing detailed word-painting, which paradoxically permits
a tremendous intensity and identification with the awe at the mystery of the “divine
condescension" of Love. English poetry, by William Blake, also elicits a
similarly instinctive and effective response in The Lamb and The
Tiger. The former, also from 1985, was made famous by the choir of King's College,
Cambridge by its inclusion in the
annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, might almost be described as a
(sacred) lullaby, built on a lyrical idea and its inversion. The latter, dating
from two years later. is. appropriately, a dazzling, fiery evocation of the "fearful
symmetry" of this symbol of the energy of God's creation; it includes a
masterstroke in the quotation of the music for The Lamb at the words
who made the Iamb make thee?"
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis Collegium Regale of 1986 were also written
for King's College, Cambridge. Although they were intended for the Anglican liturgy, (hey make exceptional
use of the ison (drone) of Greek Orthodox tradition, and in the Magnificat
Tavener includes the troparion to the Mother of God, "Greater in
honour than the Cherubim, and glorious incomparably more than the seraphim, thou
who inviolate didst bring forth God the Word, and art indeed the true Mother of
God: thee do we magnify". This is inserted after each verse of the text,
according to Orthodox usage. Increasingly rich scoring is used for each verse,
and the troparion is set with particular exuberance. By contrast, (he Nunc
dimittis is a sparer, more restrained setting, though showing a similarly imaginative
use of colour.
Two Hymns to the Mother of God date from 1985. The first sets part of a
text taken from the Liturgy of St Basil the Great, celebrated on the Feast of
St Basil and on the Sundays of Great Lent, speaking of the cosmic power of the
Mother of God, her in whom "all creation rejoices". Tavener sets it
as a double choir canon, with striking passing dissonances, to magical effect,
and formally it is tripartite. The second hymn takes a text from the Feast of the
Dormition (falling asleep) of the
of God, in which the Virgin addresses the Apostles and Christ, repeated three
times in varying scorings. Funeral Ikos is one of Tavener's most serenely
beautiful works. It sets words from the service for burial of priests. The
music, austere and hypnotic, repeats six times in different vocal combinations,
until (he whole text is covered. Each section is demarcated by an' Alleluia'
.the texts of Orthodox funeral services express not only the awareness of the
mortal life ("Where then is comeliness? Where then is wealth? Where then
is the glory of this world?"), but a clear hope and belief in life after
As One who has slept (1997) deals with what the composer describes as the
"awe, silence and expectation" which characterize the Liturgy of St
Basil celebrated on the morning of Great and Holy Saturday, when Hell is
harrowed and death is trampled underfoot by the Resurrection which will be
celebrated at midnight, The main choir, which sings the text twice, followed by
Alleluias, is "shadowed" by a second, singing a choral drone which
moves, in the first section, from E minor to E major and back again, and
similarly in the second from F sharp minor to F sharp major and back, The
bareness of the musical material in this work is very striking Tavener's most
recent setting of the Lord's Prayer (1999) is constructed in a similarly
economical fashion, but what strikes one when listening to them is the harmonic
ebb-and-flow, the waves of gentle dissonance that give them, far from any
Eastern resonance, such a traditionally English sound. Rather less English,
however, is Svyati, written in 1995.
is a dialogue between choir and solo 'cello, built on the text of the Trisagion
("Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us"), sung in
Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church The
'cello plays long-breathed lines of ever increasing intensity, while the choir
solemnly and imploringly intones the petitions of the Trisagion, This
text occurs throughout the services of the Orthodox Church, including that
which is evoked here - the funeral service, when the coffin is taken from the church
to the grave, Svyati was begun on learning of the death of the father of a
friend, Jane Williams, and is dedicated to his memory, The personal grief which
seems to be expressed in the song of the solo 'cello is interwoven with the
timeless compassion invoked by the choir, the "eternal 'I am"'
resounding through the ages.
 God is with us
is with us.
ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth.
people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
people that dwell in the shadow of death,
them the light has shined.
unto us a child is born! For unto us a son is given!
the government shall he upon his shoulder.
his name shall be called Wonderful!
The Mighty God!
 Song for Athene
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Remember me O Lord,
you come into your kingdom.
Give rest O Lord to your hand-maid,
has fallen asleep.
The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring
life, and door of paradise.
Life a shadow and a dream.
Weeping at the grave creates the song Alleluia.
Come, enjoy rewards and crowns
have prepared for you.
 The Lamb
Lamb, who made thee?
thou know who made thee?
thee life, and bid thee feed
the stream and o'er the mead;
thee clothing of delight,
clothing, woolly, bright;
thee such a tender voice,
all the vales rejoice?
Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Lamb, I'll tell thee;
is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb.
is meek, and he is mild,
became a little child.
a child, and thou a Iamb, We are called by his name.
Lamb, God bless thee!
 The Tiger
Tiger! Bumming bright
the forests of the night,
immortal hand or eye
frame thy fearful symmetry?
what distant deeps or skies
the fire of thine eyes?
what wings dare he aspire?
the hand dare seize the fire?
what shoulder, and what art,
twist the sinews of thy heart?
when thy heart began to beat,
dread hand? And what dread feet?
the hammer? What the chain?
what furnace was thy brain?
the anvil? What dread grasp
its deadly terrors clasp?
the stars threw down their spears,
watered heaven with their tears,
he smile his work to see?
he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tiger! Burning bright
soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath
in God my Saviour;
in honour than the cherubim, and glorious
more than the seraphim;
who inviolate didst bring forth God the
and art indeed the Mother of God:
do we magnify.
the lowliness of His handmaiden.
behold, from henceforth
generations shall call me blessed
He that is mighty hath
me, and holy is His name.
His mercy is on them that fear
throughout all generations.
hath showed strength with His arm:
hath scattered the proud in the imagination of
hath put down the mighty from their seat,
hath exalted the humble and
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
the rich He hath
remembering His mercy hath holpen His servant
Israel, as He promised to our
and His seed, forever.
be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy
it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
 Nunc Dimittis
now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,
to Thy word.
mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,
Thon hast prepared
the face of all people,
be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
to be the glory of Thy people Israel.
be to the Father, and to
Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
it was in the beginning, is now, and
shall be, world without end Amen.
 Funeral lkos
these bitter words of the dying,
brethren, which they utter as they go hence?
am parted from my brethren.
my friends do I abandon, and go hence.
whither I go, that understand I not, neither
shall become of me yonder; only God,
hath summoned me knoweth.
make commemoration of me with the song: Alleluia.
whither now go the souls?
dwell they now together there?
mystery have I desired to learn,
none can impart aright.
they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
have they forgotten all those who mourn them
make the song Alleluia.
go forth on the path eternal and as condemned,
ourselves before the only God eternal.
then is comeliness?
then is wealth?
then is the glory of this world?
of these things aid us,
only to say oft the psalm: Alleluia.
thou hast shown mercy unto man,
man, that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
same sball there deliver thee from want.
in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:
and the beauty of the body fade
the hour of death,
the tongue then burneth fiercely,
the parched throat is inflamed.
beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
comeliness of the face all altered,
shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
the other parts have become numb,
often say: Alleluia.
ecstasy we are inflamed
we but hear that there is light eternal yonder;
there is Paradise,
every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry
thus unto God: Alleluia.
Two Hymns to the Mother of God
 Hymn to the Mother of God
you, O Woman full of Grace
you, O Woman full of Grace,
angelic choirs and the human race,
creation rejoices O sanctified Temple,
Paradise, and glory of Virgins.
You, O Woman full of Grace, all creation rejoices.
 Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God
ye apostles, assembled here from the ends of the earth,
my body in Gethsemane;
Thou my Son and God, receive my Spirit.
 Love bade me Welcome
bade me welcome yet my soul drew back,
of dust and sinne.
quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
my first entrance in,
nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
I lack'd any thing.
guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
said, You shall be he.
the unkjnde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
cannot look on thee.
took my hand, and smiling did reply,
made the eyes but I?
Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
where it doth deserve.
know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
deare, then I will serve.
must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
I did sit and eat.
 As one who has slept
one who has slept
Lord has risen
rising he has seen ns
rising he has seen us
 The Lord's Prayer
Father who art in Heaven
be Thy name
will be done
earth as it is in Heaven
us this day our daily bread
forgive us our trespasses
we forgive those who trespass against us
lead us not into temptation
deliver us from evil
mercy upon us.
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TAVENER: Song for Athene / Svyati