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John Tavener’s piano works are less well known than his large orchestral, vocal and choral works, yet at times seem to mark his stylistic and spiritual development on a more personal level. Tavener’s first piano work, Palin, foreshadows his search for a spirituality beyond the sophisticated, technical manipulation of musical material. The loss of his cats inspired Tavener to write Mandoodles, depicting short scenes from the life of his cat Mandu, and the bell-like In Memory of Two Cats. Ypakoë, with passages in Greek or Middle Eastern style, is a contemplative meditation on the passion and resurrection of Christ. Pratiru¯pa, Sanskrit for “reflection”, is the composer’s largest work so far for piano solo. In the words of the composer, in this work “a series of self-reflecting harmonies, melodies and rhythms attempt to reflect the most beautiful, the Divine Presence which resides in every human being”.
By David Denton
John Tavener (b. 1944) Piano Music
His early compositions have been issued on Apple, the recording label of The Beatles. His choral work Song for Athene was performed at the close of Princess Diana’s funeral. He collaborated with pop-star Björk in Prayer of the Heart, as a result of a mutual enthusiasm and respect for each others’ work. The sheer vastness of the audiences moved by his melodies has hardly been known before in the world of contemporary classical music. These well-known facts all seem to confirm that Sir John Tavener (born 1944) has found firm and solid artistic grounds as a composer, attracting and capturing an unusually differentiated audience.
A closer look at Tavener’s career, however, and at his personality behind the notes, tells a different story; one of a composer having embarked on a life-long artistic and spiritual quest. While the majority of his recent works hardly exhibit any classical development of musical elements, but merely consist of iconic sounds carved into petrified states of stillness, the opposite is true for the composer’s artistic and personal development. Strongly concerned with the negative social and cultural directions in which mankind seems to be moving at a fast pace, John Tavener has been continuously and indefatigably looking for ways to refind beauty and truth, both in spirit and sound. It is an infinitely challenging task which powers the composer’s artistic mind: the creation of a universal essence, to be understood by everyone who is open to it, transcending greatly any religion, culture or background.
Many of Tavener’s large orchestral, vocal and choral works clearly reflect his main ideas about music and spirituality. Relatively less known are his piano works, which at times seem to mark his stylistic and philosophic developments on a more personal level. With Tavener writing for the piano, the instrument is transformed into a strikingly individual, sonorous world of chiming bells, highly lyrical melodic phrases, and recurrently, thundering sound clouds, confronting the omnipresent silence in the strongest possible way.
His very first piano work, Palin (1977), although clearly influenced by modernism in its use of dissonant twelve-tone series and harmonies, readily foreshadows Tavener’s search for a spirituality beyond just the sophisticated, technical manipulation of musical material. Alluding to his early, primordial experiences with music as a young child imitating thunder, lightning and rain at the piano, Tavener evocatively instructs the pianist to play “like thunder”, “like rippling rapids”, “like swaying bells at sea”. Silence allows a higher reality to enter the music. The use of a repeated C symbolizes the “ison”, a single note which is the axis between silence and the world of sounds. Another axis is found in the middle of the piece, formed by the lowest C on the piano which is repeatedly played for about ten seconds. From that moment, all the music of this composition so far is literally being sounded backwards, making the second half of the composition a mirrored version of the first half, with an additional coda. This retrograde explains the reference to the palindrome in its title.
After having joined in 1977 the Russian Orthodox Church, which recognizes man as essentially good, Tavener’s compositional style gradually transformed as he experienced the communicative power and sublimity of its traditional sacred music. Besides writing reflective music for ensembles and choirs, such as his choral work The Lamb (1982) or To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1983) for soprano and ensemble, he composed piano music for more private purposes. The loss of his cats caused Tavener to write Mandoodles (1982), depicting short scenes from the life of his cat Mandu, and the belllike In Memory of Two Cats (1986). Besides some modernist influences such as clusters and glissandi, still present in Mandoodles, one can at the same time notice a stylistic shift in these compositions: most strikingly, there is an obvious return to more traditional, triadic harmonies. Although especially Mandoodles contains sparks of wit, including a reference to Chopin, both works do possess an underlying austere tone, both human and divine at the same time, as cats, according to the composer, “know things that we have no access to”.
By the time Tavener composed for the piano again more than a decade later, he had also studied the symbolism and tone systems of Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Byzantine music extensively. Integrating the acquired knowledge within his own compositions, Tavener’s musical language had crystallized into a highly personal idiom resulting in the hugely successful piece The Protecting Veil (1987), consisting of exceptionally long melodic arches and ecstatic qualities. The birth of his second daughter inspired Tavener to write the short piano solo piece Zodiacs (1997) for her – a rather mystical piece using tones from the ancient Greek concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. Ypakoë (1997) is a much larger work, its Greek title meaning “to be obedient”, “to hear”, “to respond”. Although the work, through different sections, is a contemplative meditation on the passion and resurrection of Christ, the last section dances for joy at the risen Lord. Passages in Greek or Middle Eastern style, inspired by the stringed Greek instrument kanokaki, represent both a vigorous musical element, and Tavener’s own growing interests in other cultures.
Pratirūpa (2003), the composer’s largest work so far for piano solo, portrays his most recent stylistic and philosophical developments. Written in the same period as the mammoth composition The Veil of the Temple (2002) for soprano, choirs and ensemble, Tavener has also made a later version of Pratirūpa for piano with string orchestra. Influenced especially by the philosophies of Sufi-writers René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon and the Indian metaphysician Ananda Coomaraswamy, Tavener has come to believe that any real essence of spirituality soars above any religion, and that it can be found in any person, whatever his or her background. Pratiru¯ pa is Sanskrit for “reflection”. In the words of the composer, in this work “a series of selfreflecting harmonies, melodies and rhythms attempt to reflect the most beautiful, the Divine Presence which resides in every human being”. Besides contemplative passages of musical prayer, stripped of any “unnecessary” notes and thereby trying to represent that which is most pure in music, there are sudden strong outbursts of joy. Preceded by a glissando on the white piano keys, they are ringing on in full pedal, breaking the silence as loudly as possible. Samavedic rhythms are used to accent the ritualistic character of this music which is filled with performance directions such as “like a Hindu ceremony”, “still, unearthly”, “with rapt stillness”, “like Temple Gongs”, “as slow as possible; serene, tender, beyond time, beyond being.” Silence, however, indeed takes on a role as important as sound, so that one can listen to the voice inside oneself.
Sir John Tavener’s mind and spirit are never at rest, and his ideas on music, religion and spirituality are in a constant state of evolution. This even shows when musicians work with the composer. While he was rehearsing his piano works, upon hearing them many years after their composition, his self-critical and musical ear made him revise some aspects, such as tempo markings and even single notes. It seems to be one of many indications of a true artist constantly polishing his works and ideas, where the process can go on infinitely, until universal and eternal splendour have been found. Just as Tavener’s music never seems to reach an end, his personal longing and search for Truth and Beauty will very likely go on beyond time, beyond being.
Ralph van Raat
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TAVENER: Piano Works