Christmas music can be a challenge. Either it is so well known (The Messiah), so bland (any collection of carols), so tired (Ella Fitzgerald/Perry Como/Frank Sinatra) or so crass (Carols for Cute California Babes).
As things will get busy from now until well after Christmas I wanted to post a nice collection of music for the season, and while this one is not exactly ‘Christmas music’ it is beautiful, contemplative, spiritually uplifting and soothing to the soul. All qualities we need and can use more of, rather than less of.
John Kenneth Tavener was born on 28 January 1944 in Wembley, London, England, and claims to be a direct descendant of the 16th-century composer John Taverner. He was educated at Highgate School (where a fellow pupil was John Rutter) and at the Royal Academy of Music, where his tutors included Sir Lennox Berkeley. He first came to prominence in 1968 with his dramatic cantata The Whale, based on the Old Testament story of Jonah. It was premièred at the London Sinfonietta's début concert and later recorded by Apple Records. The following year he began teaching at Trinity College of Music, London. Other works released by Apple included his Celtic Requiem. In 1977, he joined the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox theology and Orthodox liturgical traditions became a major influence on his work. He was particularly drawn to its mysticism, studying and setting to music the writings of Church Fathers and competing a setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the principal eucharistic liturgy of the Orthodox Church.
One of Tavener's most popular and frequently performed works is his short unaccompanied four-part choral setting of William Blake's The Lamb, written for his nephew Simon on his third birthday one afternoon in 1982. This simple, homophonic piece is usually performed as a Christmas carol. More important, however, were his explorations of Russian and Greek culture, as shown in "Akhmatova Requiem" and "Sixteen Haiku of Seferis". Later prominent works include The Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987, written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church); The Protecting Veil (first performed by cellist Steven Isserlis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the 1989 Proms); and Song for Athene (1993, performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997). Following Diana's death he also composed and dedicated to her memory the piece Eternity's Sunrise, based on poetry by William Blake.
It has been reported, particularly in the British press, that Tavener left Orthodox Christianity to explore a number of other different religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam, and became a follower of the mystic philosopher Frithjof Schuon. While he has in recent years incorporated elements of non-Western music into his compositions, Tavener remains an Orthodox Christian, at least in form.
In 2003 he composed the exceptionally large work The Veil of the Temple (which was premièred at the Temple Church, Fleet Street, London), based on texts from a number of religions. It is set for four choirs, several orchestras and soloists and lasts at least seven hours. The 2004 première of his piece Prayer of the Heart written for and performed by Björk, was featured on CD and incorporated as the soundtrack to Jake Lever's installation Centre + Circumference (2008, Wallspace, All Hallows on the Wall, City of London).
In the second television series of Sacred Music, broadcast in the UK on BBC Four on Friday 2 April 2010, Tavener described himself as "essentially Orthodox".
While Tavener's earlier music was influenced by Igor Stravinsky and, to a lesser extent, Olivier Messiaen, often invoking the sound world of Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer and the ecstatic quality found in various works by Messiaen, his later music became more sparse, using wide registral space and was usually diatonically tonal. Some commentators see a similarity with the works of Arvo Pärt, from their common religious tradition to the technical details of phrase lengths, diatonicism and colouristic percussion effects.
Tavener's more recent music has moved away from the transparent simplicity of the 1980s towards a much more harmonically saturated style, in parallel with his pan-religious interests. Such works as Atma Mass (2003) and Requiem (2008) show this particularly well.
Tavener has suffered from considerable problems with his health. He had a stroke in his thirties, heart surgery and a tumour removed in his forties, and suffered two successive heart attacks which have left him very frail. He has Marfan syndrome. His wife, Maryanna, broadcast a charity appeal on BBC Radio 4 in October 2008 on behalf of the Marfan Trust. (Wikipedia)
This is I suppose a sort of 'Best of' collection and it does include one short Christmas specific song, so it gets the gong!
Gracious and generous music to enjoy in one of those gaps of quiet between the hectic mayhem of the next few days.
01 Song for Athene
02 Today the Virgin
03 The Tyger
04 The Lamb
05 The Dormition of the Mother God
06 The Protecting Veil
07 A Hymn to the Mother of God
08 What God Is We Do Not Know
09 Funeral Ikos
11 God is With Us
12 A Christmas Round
13 Elizabeth Full of Grace