EDEXCEL ADVANCED LEVEL NOTES
JOHN TAVENER: THE LAMB
Born in London in 1944, John Tavener's musical style can be said to be
unlike that of any other British composer. Whilst many contemporary composers
seem interested in pushing the limitations of tonality, investigating complex
metrical and structural patterns or experimenting with textural issues using
electronics, Tavener's music has become increasingly oriented towards Orthodox
Christianity since his conversion in 1977. Thus many works absorb the
techniques of Orthodox liturgical composition: homophonic parallel harmonies
are employed alongside monodies accompanied by drones and, importantly, both
Russian and Byzantine chant.
Much of his musical (and personal) philosophy can be characterised by these
excerpts from the periodical Fanfare, March 1999: 'John Tavener and Paul
Goodwin talk to Martin Anderson'.
On the nature of inspiration:
I don't believe that any music which is prefabricated by humans exists at
all. This is not an eccentric point of view – it's the view of the Church
Fathers. Any idea that is worked out in a human way does not exist. So that
would distance me totally from all Scholastic theology: the whole western idea
of man-made techniques, like sonata form, fugue, canon – useless...unless, of
course, it's performing a metaphysical function.
On musical formulas:
We've got to do away with formulas, because abstract music means nothing
anymore. It has gone too far. Humanism has gone so far that the bubble has
burst, and we have rotting apples of humanism. Masterpieces they may be, but I
cannot bear the sound of them, particularly Berg...the whole of Schoenberg –
not Webern: he's a mystic. And Mahler already going down: the Second Symphony
has nothing to do with the Resurrection at all.
On his use of serialism in his composition Fallen Resurrection:
I might use serialism now, as I do for a big piece, which starts in a
very complicated way, called Fallen Resurrection...I begin that piece in chaos.
I had to find a way to represent chaos... It's so complex that I thought, Thank
God I don't write music like this! It took me about six weeks to write one
page. But I had to get to that level of complexity, metaphysically speaking,
for God to love the world into being...It's so complex that you can't hear it.
So I think if I use it for a metaphysical reason, that's one thing, but
serialism on its own for me is nothing – except Stravinsky, who was able (like
Webern, in a different way) to transubstantiate what is basically
For me the music that will put me to sleep – I'm talking metaphorically,
all the time – is Bach.
On Baroque music:
…everything Baroque I dislike intensely. It's all rather frivolous and
over-decorative; it [working with Baroque instruments] reintroduced me to the
music of Handel, particularly the oratorios and the operas, which I didn't
know, so I've been listening. And I must say, since a lot of what I've said
about the music of the West [is] that it doesn't interest me any more (and that
on the whole is true), I often now spend the evening with some wine and
listening to Handel and I'm amazed at the spontaneity, the apparent simplicity
of all of it, the apparent lack of effort, which is something I feel exists in
all Western music.
On intellectual music:
Music has become so arty, art for art's sake, in a sense beyond the
intellectual critics or the other composers who write the same sort of music –
I don't see what purpose it has in the world.