Saturday, 22 September 2012

John Tavener

John Tavener
Born 1944
As a young man, Tavener was described by many as a musical prodigy. Born and educated in London (with John Rutter as one of his peers) he then went on to study at the Royal College of Music - like all true london musicians. John Tavener is now one of the lucky few to be considered by many as one of the best contemporary Classical composers. A profoundly religious man, Tavener's music is heavily influenced by medieval music. Despite the fact his music is often considered to be quite conservative - I actually find the accessibility of his music to be one of the most appealing features of his compositional style. To persuade any critics further, Tavener has been knighted for his services to music, and has also won the Ivor Novello award.

The Lamb
One of his best pieces is perhaps his christmas carol: 'The Lamb'. This piece - although considered difficult to listen to - is one of the best pieces of contemporary classical music to use to educate anybody about the different compositional techniques used by contemporary composers, such as inversion, augmentation, diminution and retrograde. The piece is made up of a single phrase, that is transformed throughout the piece in every way possible, e.g. singing it in unison, in retrograde, in harmony etc. When the phrase is inverted, it creates a sound that is quite unnatural for the ear. However, like a lot of Tavener's music, this technique creates an eerie and beautiful atmosphere that distinguishes his music from other contemporary choral pieces.
Listen here

Song for Athene
Tavener's most well-known piece is his 'Song for Athene'. Composed for the Westminster Cathedral Choir, the piece was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 as her cortege departed from Westminster Abbey. This was indeed appropriate, as the piece was intended as an elegy. The inspiration for the music came from Tavener's description of Athene: "Her beauty, both outward and inner was reflected in her love acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church". Similar to The Lamb, the piece is based around a repeated phrase sung by the tenors, as well as using similar techniques such as inversion. Although the piece is a little repetitive, the intentions of the composer bring a new level to the music. Moreover, its use in the funeral of Princess Diana will forever mark this short choral work as tragically beautiful.
Listen here

Hymn to the Mother of God
I first came across this piece on a choral course, and was pleasantly surprised by the religious tone that it created even when we were simply rehearsing it. Not only is the first chord haunting - but Tavener structures this piece by using a double choir effect with one choir singing a few beats after the first. By doing this, the second choir creates a sort of echo that emphasises the religious nature of the work. What I particularly like about this piece, is that Tavener includes unrelated modulations between the ends and the beginnings of phrases. For instance, at 1:25, we can clearly hear some sort of imperfect cadence. This is then followed by a silence, and then jumps straight back into the first chord of the piece. Although - like most of his pieces - Hymn to the Mother of God is very short, the message is simple - and it is the elaborate decoration of clashing harmonies that make it so meaningful. 
Listen here

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