Sir John Tavener, at World Premiere, reveals a Jewish element in his music 

by Andrew M. Rosemarine
direct from The Manchester International Festival, UK

Sir John Tavener credit Jon Super

Sir John Tavener credit Jon Super

Verdi’s career was catapulted heavenwards, when he wrote the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in Nabucco. Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote music on Jewish themes also. Now England’s leading contemporary composer has revealed a Jewish element in his work. Sir John Tavener’s soaring melodies moved millions at the funeral of Princess Diana. His later Lament for Jerusalem, a mystical love song, brought together sacred scripture from Psalms inc. By the Waters of Babylon and from the Abrahamic faiths. Other works include The Whale (yes, That Whale! ), Veil of the Temple, and New Jerusalem. This deeply religious composer told me of the Jewish part in his music, at a concert dedicated to him at the Manchester International Festival.

Sir John, a calm and wise father-figure, is speaking to me in the Bridgewater Hall, surrounded by his clarinettist wife Maryanna, charming student daughters Theodora and Sophia, and spirited schoolboy son Orlando. The concert features three world premieres by Tavener. The last of these, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, based on Leo Tolstoy’s famous novella, is a profound death-bed revelation of the Meaning of Life, and will be seen by generations to come as a mighty declaration of Faith and Hope. Sir John entrusted that Hope to cellist Steven Isserlis.

Tavener’s religious message is universal. In If Ye Love Me, an all women Sacred Sounds Choir drawn from different faiths (including Jewesses) proclaims the Messages of “Love one another, as I have loved you” and “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” “Divine Love” says our knight ”is central to all the great religious traditions, and I have tried to reflect that in this piece.” It invokes names of The Deity. Taverner explains to me that he would have liked to have used The Name in Hebrew [the Tetragrammaton.] “But this would offend Orthodox Jews” he explains, “and I do not want to do that.

soprano Elin Manahan Thomas

soprano Elin Manahan Thomas

The Concert opened with a Love Duet between a ravishing cow-herd girl (soprano Elin Thomas) and her enraptured lover (tenor John Mark Ainsley.)  Elin enchanted us all, like a song-bird whose breast overflows with joy.  Mozart’s Papageno and Papagena duet in The Magic Flute  inspired this composition. It symbolises the union of the human soul with G-d.  Sir John said this was “the most ecstatic music I’ve ever composed.”  It was, indeed, in performance, Pure Ecstasy.

conductor Tecwyn  Evans  credit Alan Dove

conductor Tecwyn Evans credit Alan Dove

In Mahamatar, the legendary spiritual singer Abida Parveen sang sublimely in Sanskrit of the Great Mother.  Steven Isserlis’ Stradivarius soared in melancholy, as we watched Werner Herzog’s film The Pilgrimage.  Our chevalier wrote its score.  Its message, full of faith, is “It is only the pilgrims …who do not lose the way.”  As they trundle through the snows of Russia, Tavener’s lyricism conjurs up the suffering in Chagall’s Shtetls and in Schelomo, Ernest Bloch’s great cello masterpiece depicting Solomon, King of Israel.  And Sir John agrees with me.  When I ask him whether there is a Jewish voice in this concert, he says “Oh yes! Steven Isserlis is a Jewish musician, and the cello’s voice here is a Jewish one.”  With his great main of curly locks, Isserlis looks like a Lion of Judah.  The cello’s charm is his roar.

cellist Steven_Isserlis_(c)_Kevin_Davis

cellist Steven_Isserlis_(c)_Kevin_Davis

The Death of Ivan Ilyich closes this concert of transcendent Tavener, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, exuberant and spiritual, conducted masterfully by Tecwyn Evans.  In Ivan Ilyich, the composer tells me, he wholeheartedly embraces Tolstoy’s message that materialistic success (such as Judge Ivan Ilyich’s) may be hollow, full of insincerity, cost us our Soul, and make our life a living death.  Whereas if we embrace higher values, our passage to the next world can bring us spiritual Light.

Ivan Ilyich was sung with deep deep gravitas by the Samoan bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, built like a Haka hooker rugby-player.  He entrusts his soul to his Creator.   Reconciled to his Fate, his last words are “There is no death, only light. What bliss! What joy!  Only light!

And, depicting that Light, the last note, long and sustained, is Isserlis’, ethereal,  high and hopeful.  Then his bow, freed from the weight of his earthly cello, rises, slowly, towards Heaven.  A universal message of Hope for all of mankind, and for all faiths.

Andrew M. Rosemarine, an international lawyer, writes on classical music and hazzanut.

PS For those new to Tavener, his Song for Athene, sung at Diana’s funeral, is a good place to start.

all photos, courtesy of MIF; text copyright Rosemarine 2013