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ClassicsOnline Home » TAVENER, J.: Ex Maria Virgine (Clare College Choir)
Admired for the sheer beauty of his meditative and mystical music, John Tavener writes of his Ex Maria Virgine, which was dedicated to HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall in joyful celebration of their marriage: “I have set both familiar and less well known texts, and linked them with an expanding and contracting phrase ‘Ex Maria Virgine’. This refers to Mary the Mother of God—‘The Eternal Feminine’—and should be sung with great radiance and femininity.” The other, mainly unaccompanied, works reveal Tavener’s response to various poetic texts that also praise the Virgin Mary.
By David Denton
Born in England in 1944, John Tavener now holds a place among the great and most profound choral composers of our time.
A deeply religious man, his spirituality infuses his music, the slow and hypnotic nature of his scores creating a rich and rewarding experience. Of his more recent works none will be more readily approachable than the ‘Christmas Sequence’, Ex Maria Virgine. Commissioned in 2005 by the present performers, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, its eight sections use a mix of popular and lesser known texts including Ding! Dong! Merrily on High; Rocking; Sweet was the Song, and opening and closing with Verbum caro. Often very difficult, Tavener shows just how much further the sound of the human voice can be explored while still remaining within the long established traditions of choral singing. The work lasts not far short of forty minutes and would make an ideal half of a choral concert, the organ part moving between pure accompaniment and a more outgoing presence as the texts dictate. This is the premiere recording, its first complete concert performance taking place as part of this year’s Christmas festivities. Whether enjoying the virtuoso moments or in the lyric passages, the singing, under the direction of Timothy Brown, has warmth and beauty of tone. The disc is completed by six shorter pieces, Birthday Sleep; A Nativity; O, Do Not Move; O Though Gentle Light; Angels and the first recording of Marienhymne. All very attractive scores in that ethereal mode we have come to expect from the composer. The sound quality is exceptionally good.
Sir John Tavener (b. 1944)
Ex Maria Virgine
John Tavener studied with Sir Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music where, encouraged by the Australian-born composer David Lumsdaine, an interest in the late works of Stravinsky informed his earliest compositions. From these there emerged a preoccupation with ritual and repetition as well as a growing spiritual awareness that marked him out as a highly imaginative and individual voice who would take an entirely different musical path from his Highgate School contemporaries Brian Chapple and John Rutter. After the success of the flamboyant biblical fantasy The Whale of 1968 there followed several large-scale works during the 1970s such as Ultimos Ritos, Celtic Requiem and his opera St Thérèse which confirmed Tavener’s spiritual direction: in 1977 he left behind his Presbyterian background and embraced the Russian Orthodox Church. From then on his music became increasingly meditative and mystical, forsaking earlier complexity for contemplative beauty, drawing wide public admiration and huge commercial success from The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene.
Since 2001 Tavener has broadened his spiritual horizons and, through the influence of the poet, philosopher and mystic Frithjof Schuon, embraced the Universalist view where all religions are seen as equally valid. In some of his recent projects (The Veil of the Temple) Tavener has added Hinduism, Islam and Sufism to his catalogue of influences. However, it is the Eternal Feminine that has been a recurring theme in many of his sacred works since A Canticle to the Mother of God appeared in 1976. Nearly thirty years later Ex Maria Virgine, completed in 2005, is in one sense another part of this succession of Mary-inspired works. Of this new Christmas sequence the composer says, ’I have set both familiar and less well known texts, and linked them with an expanding and contracting phrase ‘Ex Maria Virgine’. This refers to Mary the Mother of God—‘The Eternal Feminine—and it should be sung with great radiance and femininity.’
This expanding idea also serves as a structural device and provides a reminder of Christ’s humanity symbolised by the Virgin Mary. Tavener sets Verbum caro factum est to a unison theme, conspicuous for its irregular phrase patterns and poignant chromaticism, over a characteristic organ pedal. This serene mood is swept aside for the invigorating Nowell! Nowell! Out of your Sleep where the staccato articulation in the unaccompanied verses is exhilarating and urgent. A palindromic organ part underpins the choir in each refrain. Reflection and exuberance coexist in the bittersweet harmonies of Remember O Thou Man where the return of the first haunting phrase between ecstatic outbursts of the angel’s joy reminds us of our own transience and God’s promise to us. In Sweet was the Song radiant organ trills convey Mary’s joy, and smooth choral textures (with their hidden palindromes) underline the Virgin’s grace and femininity. By contrast, the more masculine and visceral rhythms of Ave Rex Angelorum, marked to be sung with a wild, primordial joy, evoke God’s might. Gentler, flowing phrases express Mary’s purity in There is no Rose where four-part canons (sung by sopranos and tenors) carry the five verses of this medieval carol. Tavener returns to the earlier dance-like mood and staccato articulation for Ding! Dong! Merrily on high, where an energetic pealing refrain is given organ support. The gentle dissonance and consoling lullaby of Rocking leads to the grandeur of Unto us is born a Son, whose granite-like verses are interspersed with celebrations of the Virgin Mary in Greek and Arabic. The sequence concludes with the return of the opening Verbum caro factum est.
Ex Maria Virgine was commissioned in 2005 by Timothy Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and receives its first complete performance on 12 December 2008 in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge.
Birthday Sleep, subtitled a meditation on the Incarnation, sets a poem by the twentieth-century Welshman Vernon Watkins. Its three verses move between solemn awe and a rapt stillness reflecting the revelation of God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. The mystery of God is musically revealed in a series of chord progressions that hinge on the relationship between B minor and F major. The work was first performed in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh on 19th December, 2000, by the choir of George Watson’s College.
Ten years earlier Tavener took lines from the distinguished Greek poet (and former Greek ambassador to London) George Seferis for O, Do Not Move. This miniature ikon of the Nativity (just fifteen bars) has a simple three-part structure in which chromatically ascending bass phrases in a Byzantine manner frame the full choir singing the word ‘listen’ in which a descending major scale is set within a minor chord.
A Nativity is written for five-part upper voice choir (SSSAA) and was first performed on December 1st, 1987, at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Haberdashers’ Aske’s Girls’ School. Atmospheric tone clusters derived from the first four notes of each phrase lend mystery to this enigmatic text by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats.
For Marienhymne (2005) the composer turns to the Swiss poet Frithjof Schuon and sets an extract from the last section of Maria, (one of many poems from an extended collection) that honours Mary, mother of God. It is scored for two a cappella choirs—a full SATB group and a smaller distant upper-voice echo choir who recall the words and block chord phrases of the full choir, harmonically reversed in the manner of a palindrome. Dramatic, joyful phrases eventually subside as the poet reflects on Mary’s beauty with a chromatic melisma on the syllable ‘Schön’.
O Thou Gentle Light from 2000 is dedicated to Tavener’s wife Maryanna and to Oakham School, by whom it was commissioned. The Orthodox Church provides the inspiration for the music which derives from an ancient Byzantine hymn (translated by the composer) and is written for choir and Psaltis—a solo baritone whose Byzantine chant joins the choir (singing in English) as their phrases end, each one concluding on a unison octave and fading into the distance.
The earliest work to be written here is Angels which was composed for the unveiling of three stained glass panels in 1985 designed by the English mystical painter Cecil Collins and first performed at All Saints’ Church, Basingstoke. A tremolo organ accompaniment, conveying the Byzantine doctrine of the Angels, ‘dazzling youths arrayed in white’, shimmers over a pedal E and provides a link for the antiphonal choral forces that give way to a solo group of boys voices. With the help of Mother Thekla (the Orthodox nun from north Yorkshire and his muse for many years) whose advice he sought, Tavener manages to transform a simple hymn-like text by a former Canon Librarian of Winchester Cathedral.
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TAVENER, J.: Ex Maria Virgine (Clare College Choir...