John Tavener - Funeral Canticle (1/2)





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Published on Nov 11, 2010

Funeral Canticle, for chorus (1996)

George Mosley, baritone
The Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music
Paul Goodwin

For John Tavener, mortality is a knot in a string whose ends extend forever in both directions, and while virtually all of his works have an air of prayerfulness and godly mystery to them, in memoriam works such as the Funeral Canticle from 1996 afford the opportunity for deep musical and poetic rumination on the duration of life and the infinity of existence. Though mortal mourning is never entirely absent from works in this vein, it is coupled by an assurance of celestial existence -- an assurance fueled by the composer's personal religiosity.

The Funeral Canticle is one of two works inspired by the passing of the composer's father, Kenneth. The other, Eternal Memory, is a co-memorial to Tavener's father and to the late Lady Diana, Princess of Wales. While the ruminations of that work are more secularly philosophical -- it takes its text from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence and Eternity -- the Funeral Canticle is more explicitly religious, having been prepared for the interdenominational funeral service that his father had requested. Its texts include the kliros from the traditional Orthodox funeral service, interspersed with verses composed by Tavener's longtime friend, collaborator (Mary of Egypt, Akathist), and spiritual guide, Mother Thekla of the Monestary at Normanby. As is the case with many of Tavener's other works, an overarching motto permeates the piece. Here, it is a solemn chant in Greek: "Remember eternal things."

Though a sense of stasis pervades the work -- for there is no hurry when distances are traversed over eternities -- each sectional division is marked by a distinct kind of calm. The opening motto is given in what sounds like Byzantine chant; the subsequent lines, "We are born as naked infants, Then baptized into Christ our God," are set in delicate, sinuous parallel chords; the kliros that follows is set in rich chord progressions overlaid with solemn repetitions, the sustained tones in the upper voices hovering over a restlessly ponderous bass. The Greek chant returns, followed again by a lush texture of parallel thirds and a rich Alleluia passage. The warm harmonies of the kliros return, followed by another Greek chant, and another verse: "Grant O Lord in love unceasing ... rest among the faithful, in the life beyond compare." After the Alleluia, the final iteration of the kliros brings the work to a close.

One senses a deliberate (and to those familiar with Tavener's work, expected) attempt to create an air of timelessness in this work. There seems to be a circular trajectory to the repeating textural patterns: the liturgical and ancient sounds of the Greek chant give way to the parallel harmonies, which are supplanted by the rich chords of the kliros. Law, theology, speculation seem to fade and blend into the higher reality of the eternal unknown; material objects and mortal ideas, "the idols of the world," disappear in the wake of "eternal things." Tavener has constructed a terrestrial musical frame, made of simple signs and symbols, through which to view existence from a celestial perspective. [allmusic.com]

Art by Rosson Crow


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