Sell Cleverness, Buy Wonder:
The Music of Sir John Tavener
Composer Tavener, a devout Orthodox Christian, believes that neither music nor religion can be exclusive.
BY: Interviewed by Laura Sheahen
Which composers and musicians of the past do you feel communicate religious truths most beautifully in their music?
I think one has to go back quite a long way, if one's talking about communicating religious truths. One has to go right back to chant. Hildegard von Bingen conveys spiritual ecstasy, if we're talking of Western music. What bothers me about Western music is that it doesn't have an esoteric dimension, in the way the music of the East has, whether it be Byzantine chant, the music of the Sufis, or Hindu music.
Even when the musicians are writing Masses--like Beethoven?
I don't think Beethoven expresses religious truth. He expresses a human truth. I mean, something like the Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis--I can't take all the raging and the dramatic titanism of it: Agnus Dei, qui tollis, qui tollis, qui tollis peccata mundi--and then the kettledrums rolling. That kind of humanism for me doesn't convey any sort of religious truth at all.
Of course, there are moments in Bach that I think do. Probably less so in the specifically religious music, but in the unaccompanied cello suites, or the opening of the St. Matthew passion, which is absolutely wonderful, the most extraordinary, mysterious sound.
Which Bible passages resonate most with you?
Obviously, St. John, because it is in a sense the most esoteric. Some people say you can't use esoteric as applied to Christianity, but I think you can. St. John is the most extraordinary, the most mysterious, the most mystical. I love particularly the last discourse Jesus has with his disciples: "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you." And "I am the true vine, my father is the husband."
How about icons?
I actually adore the Coptic icons because they have a childlike mentality. I don't mean a sentimental childlike. I mean a childlike simplicity.
As in "you must become like a child"?
Exactly. And that's why I have problems with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. You can't storm the Kingdom by dramatic titanism. You have to be a child.
You mentioned once that you hoped to reinstate prelapsarian innocence with your music. Did I get that right?
Yes, it sounds rather godlike of me to say that, doesn't it? I think that's a very important thing, somehow.
Could you expand on this idea of restoring innocence through art, through music?
Quite a good question. Hmm.
Perhaps we can get to that through other means. You've quoted Blake. Which Blake works are most meaningful to you?
I do love the "Songs of Innocence" in particular. I've written a very long piece of music recently, the Veil of the Temple, which lasts about seven hours. It's really a kind of vigil. It takes place during the night, waiting for the resurrection of Christ. When it gets so near to the resurrection, there's a burst of children singing the text "It was early in the morning of the first day of the week," which of course refers to the raising of Christ.
When I talk of primordial innocence, I hear it in Sufi music with the nay flute. I see it in Coptic icons, in most traditional art, particularly art of the American Indian. I find the texts extraordinarily beautiful and very childlike and very simple. I've been particularly interested in American Indian texts.