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From the May, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Metaphysical Music by Dale Nelson

Metaphysical Music

The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament
by John Tavener, edited by Brian Keeble
London and New York: Faber and Faber, 1999
(210 pages; $15.00, paper)

Fall and Resurrection
by John Tavener
Compact disc—Chandos, CHAN 9800
VHS videocassette—KTCV 102N (NTSC format); an Opus Arte Media
Production in cooperation with Chandos Records, Etcetera Publications

reviewed by Dale Nelson

John Tavener (born 1944) must be the most widely known living Orthodox figure in the arts. Multitudes heard his “Song for Athene” at Diana’s funeral, and his choral setting of Blake’s “The Lamb” and his orchestral work The Protecting Veil are popular. British TV viewers recently heard his incidental music for an adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast fantasies. “Ikons of Light,” an October 2000 celebration in London of Tavener’s own music and of the music that he likes most, featured new compositions (The Fool, The Bridegroom, and Apokatastasis) and participation by the London Sinfonietta, the Anonymous Four, and others, including a male choir of inmates from the Pentonville Prison. Tavener selected a range of compositions by other composers, including Handel, Stravinsky, and Hildegard of Bingen, as well as Greek Orthodox music and Sufi chants. (Tavener didn’t include Bach because, he says, Bach “is so concerned with the personal Christ, not the cosmic Christ.”) The festival highlighted Tavener’s reverence for “the Sacred.”

Fundamental for Tavener is a concept of “Tradition” that might not be so much Orthodox as “comparative,” an outlook associated with such writers as Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Martin Lings, Titus Burckhardt, and others, including Tavener’s friends Marco Pallis and Philip Sherrard, all of whose essays and reviews appeared in Tomorrow, later called Studies in Comparative Religion. It’s the stance of the “Traditional” school that the “great traditions,” including Pythagoreanism and Platonism as well as major “world religions,” are divine revelations, each of which provides the “wisdom” or “gnosis” needed for a culture and its members to attain unity with the divine source. These writers generally oppose an eclectic “blending” of religions into a synthetic religion for all humanity. Rather, it seems, one should be a wholehearted disciple of one of the religions, each of which is an integral whole—while studying, appreciating, and being strengthened by others, which are equally valid on their respective metaphysical planes and in their cultural contexts. A subsequent British journal, Temenos, edited by Kathleen Raine, featured a greater emphasis on the arts than Tomorrow/Studies, but was its successor in its outlook. Tavener himself contributed to Temenos.

Given the Traditional school’s approval of a number of religions, which make different truth claims, the question may be asked: Why be a Christian rather than, say, a Taoist? According to the first chapter of The Rape of Man and Nature, by Tavener’s late friend and mentor Philip Sherrard, the compelling reason for a Western person to be a Christian “is the purely pragmatic one that Christianity is the only authentic living religious tradition which we who belong to the cultural orbit of the European world possess—the only religious tradition which, in spite of everything, is still capable of nourishing and maturing our spiritual life, whether individual or collective.” Sherrard means Orthodoxy, specifically, because, he says, “the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions became dominated by other standards [than that which he believes is characteristic of the Greek Fathers and a few Western theologians such as John Scotus Erigena], with consequences that have become disastrous in all spheres of human and other life.” The few later Western authorities whom Sherrard approves of include the Cambridge Platonists, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats.

This is what Tavener thinks, too, as he remarks in The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament, and as interviews and articles published elsewhere indicate. He assures everyone that he is not interested in proselytizing for Orthodoxy as against non-Christian religions, but he has very little to say that is good of non-Orthodox Christianity. He repeatedly distances himself from the “scholasticism,” “dogmatism,” and “legalism” of the Roman Church, objecting to “Thomas Aquinas looking for the exact number of angels dancing on the head of a pin” and to “the image of the murdered God, with the blood, the sweat and the agony of suffering,” which has been, he says, “disastrous for the culture of the Latin West. Such a violent image may explain a great deal of the violence of Western art.” Less abrasively, he contrasts Gothic cathedrals that “aspire” heavenward with Orthodox churches under whose frescoed domes the worshiper is already “surrounded by heaven.” His experience of Protestantism was, in youth, of a London Presbyterian church, and he is not interested in Protestantism at all, although he accepts commissions for pieces to be performed in Anglican churches.

His spiritual formation as an adult has included much study along Traditional lines; for example, around 1980 he was immersed in the Philokalia, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers—and, he says, “many other traditional books, both Islamic and Hindu.” His music freely draws on non-Christian sources. In Zoe, a work in progress, he uses Hindu Samavedic rhythms “for their innate sacredness and to create a ‘divine obscurity’” for the words of Christ. Byzantine chant is, he believes, indebted to Pythagorean mathematics and Platonism, and to the synagogue music that Christ heard. Most of the Traditional writers mentioned above are cited, always approvingly, in Tavener’s book.

Tavener, then, is, while practicing Orthodoxy, in line with the Traditionalists in his esteem for non-Christian faiths, especially Sufism. And one can at least appreciate the opposition of the Traditionalists to the fashion for resolving the differences between religions according to a psychological, usually Jungian, common denominator. (See Wolfgang Smith’s Cosmos and Transcendence for a Traditional critique of Jung.)

Members of this school advocate the guidance of living spiritual masters, where possible. Tavener’s Orthodox advisors have included Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who counseled Tavener into Orthodoxy, and his present associate, Mother Thekla, abbess of the Monastery of the Dormition at Whitby. In the remarks he contributes to the booklets that accompany CDs of his music, he explains not only his specifically musical intentions but also the Orthodox relevance of his work. Probably quite a few people, indeed, are indebted to Tavener for their impression of Orthodoxy.

At the same time, he is willing to put his talents to use in the Orthodox Church. Tavener would like to see his Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (which runs about 15 minutes) used in Orthodox church services; he wishes there were an autocephalic English Orthodox Church and would like being a “small-town Bach” writing for it. Perhaps Tavener will prove to be a pioneer; he says that Bishop Kallistos Ware told him, after a performance of Tavener’s Orthodox Vigil Service (in an Anglican church), “This is the music we ought to be singing in the Orthodox Church in England, but you’re a lone voice, and I’m afraid this will not happen for years because the Orthodox Church moves at a snail’s pace.” Ultimately, Tavener does not intend to write chant for Orthodox church services, though he does strive to “reinstate” in his music both “prelapsarian innocence” and an “ethos of compunction, of humility, of certitude.”

His outspokenness extends to dismissal of classical music. Tavener sees modern, nontraditional music as “contrived, concerned with satisfying the ego,” and having “nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the sacred.” Although we know from this book that he likes some of Handel and has appreciative words for Stravinsky, Webern, and a few others, Tavener tends to reject nearly all Western music composed since Gregorian chant and Hildegard of Bingen. Unlike music from the Renaissance to today, traditional music, Tavener says, is “non-progressive,” with “no development” and “no evolution.” It is metaphysical above all. “All music already exists. When God created the world, he created everything. It’s up to us as artists to find that music.” The music Tavener aspires to write “comes from God,” not from the composer’s personality. He elaborates: “It’s very well put by St. Paul, when he says, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.’ And you could interpret that: “It is no longer I who live, but tradition that lives in me,’ because tradition is God, at its highest point. Therefore, in practice, it should be no longer ‘I’ who ‘compose’ but tradition that composes in me.”

He reports that his music often comes to him very swiftly in a burst of inspiration. “The Lamb” was finished within 15 minutes. He wrote The Protecting Veil “very quickly.” He says, “For a composer to labour over a score for years and years is incomprehensible to me”; the composer should get rid of “the idea that you have to struggle over note rows, or with sonata form, or the humanist bugbear, development. Music just is. It exists. If you have ears to hear, you’ll hear it!”

He comments in this book on many of his works, but because the CDs of his music usually contain fairly ample explanations, much of what he says will be familiar to diligent collectors of recorded Tavener compositions. Fall and Resurrection, which premiered on January 4, 2000, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, is available on both disc and video. (The sound quality of the video is not outstanding.) The work begins with silence, and then comes, not an ex nihilo creation, but, Tavener says in the CD booklet, “uncreated chaos, in which all the potentials of good and evil are heard. . . . Out of this chaos, God loved the world into being.” The libretto, once again prepared by Mother Thekla, is extremely spare; the creation of humanity and the Fall are encompassed as follows:

Adam: “Alone. Serenity. Fragrance. But alone.”
Voice of God: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Adam: “Eve, my wife!”
Eve: “Adam, my husband!”
Adam: “Wife.”
Eve: “Husband.”
Adam: “Eve.”
Eve: “Adam. . . . Apple tree.”
Adam: “Apple tree.”

This takes about ten minutes in performance. Tavener here attempts to suggest the love between Adam and Eve, not yet stricken by concupiscence. The kaval, a Persian flute, conveys innocence and tenderness. But when Tavener’s favorite soprano, Patricia Rozario, begins to sing “Apple tree,” signifying, I suppose, the lust of the eye and the turning of the spirit from divine contemplation, her voice becomes chilling. The ram’s horn brays, conveying fear and judgment. Tavener uses the orchestra to punctuate the piece, rather than play continuously. Subsequently, Tavener has a middle section—prophecy and psalm speaking of the hope of redemption. The final third presents the Incarnation, the Crucifixion as “an unconscious effort by humanity to destroy the divine order,” and the Resurrection, which begins a “cosmic dance” in which chaos gives way to harmony, and finally silence, as at the beginning of the work. In the third section, Rozario sings the parts of he Mother of God and of Mary Magdalene, who recognizes the risen Christ. Her joyous, loving cry of “Ravoni!” (Rabboni) is the last word of the composition.

Tavener has read Fr. Seraphim Rose’s The Soul After Death. I hope he will go on to read Rose’s biography, Not of This World, where he will find excerpts from a fine letter by Rose about Rene Guenon. (The complete text is given in Damascene Christensen’s Christ the Eternal Tao.) As a young man, Rose read deeply in Guenon, who taught him “to seek and love the Truth above all else.” But Rose learned that “the full Truth is only in Christianity, God’s revelation of Himself to mankind,” with Orthodoxy giving “immediate contact with God such as no other tradition can do,” and providing, Rose warned, our only lasting defense against “spiritual deception.”

Because Tavener presents elements of Orthodoxy in a form fascinating to many people, Orthodox priests and teachers may want to become familiar with the issues that Tavener raises. He certainly seems up-front about his opinions and beliefs, and these, because of his adherence to the Traditional school, are problematical.    

Dale Nelson is Associate Professor of English at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.

“Metaphysical Music” first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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