A blind faith is not necessarily a precondition for
the successful creation by a composer of a grand ritualistic, religious
musical setting. Witness the requiem masterpieces of Berlioz and Verdi,
neither of whom, as far as we can tell, believed in God. In Fall
and Resurrection we have a composer driven by a blind faith
creating something considerably less than a masterpiece. It is
though an impressive show with grand musical gestures rendered with
vast and varied resources, and lighting effects that symbolically illuminate
the drama – a sort of son et lumière. The DVD well captures
this world premiere performance of three years ago with appropriate
sense of occasion. The work is dedicated to one of Tavener’s admirers,
Prince Charles, and was performed shortly after the composer’s knighthood
(no connection I trust!).
As Tavener says, "the work should ideally be performed
in a building with a large acoustic". And so it is, St Paul’s Cathedral
being one of the stars of the show. During the performance the BBC cameras
pan and zoom with an expertise born out of a tradition of televising
generations of royal weddings, funerals and other state occasions, lovingly
caressing the building and making full use of the lighting. The sound
engineers capture something of the huge space and at the same time manage
to banish the worst elements of the building’s notoriously reverberating
acoustic. The Cathedral even has the equivalent of its own vocal part
as its bells ring out at the climactic end of the piece, an integral
part of the event.
The work is in three parts, each broken into titled
sections, progressing from the Fall in Part 1 to Resurrection
and transfiguration in Part 3. The opening emerges from silence and
darkness – literally - with long low notes that swell in sound as the
rest of the orchestra joins in with the Representation of Chaos.
As a general idea converted into musical procedure this is not much
different from the opening of Wagner’s Ring, the main difference
being that the latter is a swelling E flat chord, the Tavener a growing
atonal cacophony. We learn from the helpful introductory talk given
by Stephanie Hughes in the Cathedral just before the performance that
composition of this short opening section had been a "huge mathematical
undertaking". A matrix of notes was given 40 different permutations
to be played at 27 different speeds. Each of the many pages of this
part of the score had taken Tavener about a month to compose. Well he
need not have bothered because nobody would have known if Stephanie
had not told us. However, it is an undeniably powerful effect (owing
nothing to its mathematical complexity) and it provides a couple of
pointers to the work as a whole. Firstly, one of the main musical means
by which Tavener keeps the music going is to launch a series of mini
climaxes that in turn provides for alternating passages of huge dynamic
contrast, the biggest climax of all being reserved for the end and very
exciting it is too. The other point about the opening section is that
in learning about how it was composed we get a glimpse of some of the
pretension that is behind the work’s inception. – but more of that later.
After Chaos, the Paradise section brings
in Adam, sung with intense commitment by the excellent Stephen Richardson
in dialogue with a species of Turkish flute. He is then joined in ecstatic
duet with Eve sung by an equally intense, committed and excellent Patricia
Rozario, something of a Tavener specialist. The choir enters powerfully
for the Fall to bring about another climax. And so it goes on.
All this requires a tight grip on the range of forces employed that
includes an exotic horn-type instrument played high up in a gallery
as well as the Cathedral organ. Richard Hickox does a marvellous job
from the podium, and not just on the day for there is in the performance
a clear indication of extensive rehearsal time.
As composer, Tavener handles his effects with great
skill. For some people, that is what the music largely consists of –
a series of effects. If you are one of these people, then the DVD version
in some ways can be said to enhance the work, adding value to those
effects. The lighting and camera work may be fairly obvious in the way
they play on symbolism but are none the less powerful for that. An example
is at the end of Part Two, Prediction, where the ethereal sounds
are accompanied by shots taken by a camera that slowly pans up the inside
of the dome to the top in a gesture of aspiration.
What inspired this work? You can find out by reading
Tavener’s introduction published in the booklet and also watch his interview
on the DVD. If you are at all squeamish about composers talking pretentiously
about their own work then I strongly recommend you give both of these
a miss and give the work a chance by going straight to it. I wish I
had for I might have avoided a negative effect on my judgement. I also
recommend you do not read the rest of this review. You could, if you
wish, safely move over to another review (of the CD version) on this
site at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2000/may00/tavener.htm
What we learn from Tavener in the booklet is that the
work "encompasses….. the events which have taken place since the
beginning of time, and before time". He elaborates on that early
passage described by Stephanie Hughes – the bit that took each page
a month to compose: "the possibility of good and evil are present….therefore
every single note carries with it a metaphysical significance although,
because of the huge proliferation of notes, this cannot be heard by
the human ear". Whether this implies that Tavener is privileged
with possession of the inhuman organs required to hear it, who knows?
Here’s another random sentence later on: "The beauty and love with
which the Holy Spirit quickens the celestial image-archetypes are identical
to the beauty and love with which He quickens their created counterparts".
Now I like to think I have a fair cross section of
friends and acquaintances, but cannot think of any of them who would
think this anything other than pretentious religious, pseudo metaphysical
clap trap. In saying that I do not wish to infer an attack on those
with faith. That is another matter. The trouble with Tavener is that
his arguments lack intellectual substance and that is often what some
people have said over the years about his music, taken intrinsically.
So it can be argued that the music matches Tavener’s verbal rhetoric.
My view is that the rhetoric of the music, as far as rhetoric goes,
is of a far higher order than that of the composer’s pontifications.
The moral being, he should be advised to keep his mouth shut.
Rather than proffer such advice, the producers have
offered Tavener another platform on which to pontificate in the form
of the interview on the DVD. Here we have more of the same. I thought,
"music is liquid metaphysics", a nice one. However, there
is an illuminating bit where Tavener is being fair on himself, and thus
in turn on us and it helps to see where he is coming from. He says how
angry he got at the atonal serial composers of the sixties, "the
po-faced serialists of Darmstadt", accusing them, ironically, of
pretension. Fair enough though. He then attempts to explain why he has
often been accused of writing music lacking in any kind of intrinsic
rigour. "Certain critics say there is no substance in my music..
but it’s probably the last thing I want". There is no answer to
that. But he then goes on, if I get his drift, to define this nasty
thing called "substance". It is, for example, what Beethoven
does in his compositions. He condemns Beethoven for developing his "musical
ideas" - for personalising them, i.e. defiling them – because the
ideas themselves, which Tavener presumably regards as inspirational,
come from the "holy spirit" or "God". Can anyone
imagine Beethoven’s music as all exposition and no development? The
great composer was once described as being "ripe for the madhouse".
It follows that the fact that Sir John Tavener may appear to be off
his trolley means that he may one day be regarded as a towering genius.
I, for one, doubt it.