Visions of Eternity

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

Whilst music and Christianity seem to have been hand-in-hand since the very birth of the art form – in Western civilisation towards the end of the Dark Ages – it might seem unusual for the doctrine still to be inspiring so many composers in all sorts of exciting ways at the outset of the 21st-century.

It appears that the ritual and resonance of the Christian faith still holds a great deal for the questing minds of today’s creators, Two of our most eminent native voices, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir John Tavener, demonstrate this on Saturday, August 4, with the revival at Glyndebourne of Birtwistle’s most recent stage-work, The Last Supper (its Three Latin Motets are also performed at the Proms), and the premiere at the Proms of Tavener’s latest large-scale vision, Song of the Cosmos.

Musically, Birtwistle and Tavener would seem to have little in common. Birtwistle (born 1934) is an abrasive and frequently hard-edged modernist with a reputation for difficult, angular music that repays dedicated listening. Aside from his operas, Birtwistle’s considerable output has also encompassed orchestral works, many given at the Proms – Earth Dances and Exody for example – plus the full-scale aural assault of Panic, controversially premiered at the Last Night in 1995.

On the other hand, what has been termed the ’mystic minimalism’ of Tavener (born 1944), especially since his conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church in the late 1970s, has brought forth a very different kind of compositional power – tonal and long drawn-out lines organised as a serene, extended contemplation of the ethereal. The means and methods involved have also brought Tavener a worldwide following of almost cult-status – his dedicated listeners frequently uphold Tavener’s music as offering them a spiritual haven from the hectic pace and futility of our contemporary world.

Birtwistle’s full-scale music-theatre pieces, of which The Last Supper is the sixth, undoubtedly constitute one of the most important bodies of operatic work of our time.

The subjects of them – the Harlequinesque ’Punch and Judy’, the Greek ’Mask of Orpheus’, the Arthurian ’Gawain’, and the post-modernist fantasy ’The Second Mrs Kong’ – might on the surface all seem widely different. What connects them is a keen interest in the mythic and that the characters are timeless.

In the case of The Last Supper, working to a libretto by the Canadian poet Robin Blaser, Birtwistle has deliberately attempted to create tableaux to register in the common consciousness something rather more than twelve disciples gathered together. Yet, in what might be termed a significant new departure, Birtwistle had never composed anything religious or even remotely devotional before.

“What really interested me,” he said in an interview before The Last Supper’s premiere, “is that it’s about a group of ordinary men caught up in something extraordinary. Also, how a historic event becomes ritualised to be reinterpreted as myth”. Significantly, to that end, the figure of Jesus is not integral to The Last Supper’s dramaturgy, and, he doesn’t make his appearance until more than halfway through the action.

Instead, Birtwistle concentrates equally on the maligned figure of Judas, intriguingly portrayed as much a victim of mythic processes as Christ himself. Directed by Martin Duncan, conducted by Birtwistle’s champion, Elgar Howarth, and with a superb cast of thirteen male voices complemented by Susan Bickley as the Ghost, The Last Supper promises to become a significant addition to Glyndebourne’s summer repertoire.

Although he has composed a number of music-theatre pieces of ritualistic character, Tavener has largely steered clear of opera and its conventions. Instead it appears to be the sacred-tone systems of the liturgy itself that directly inspire him. Following on from his ambitious Fall and Resurrection, premiered at St Paul’s Cathedral last year, it seems that his new Song of the Cosmos will inhabit a similarly-spatial soundscape under the Royal Albert Hall’s dome.

For his Proms premiere, Tavener has promised distributed ensembles, banks of exotic Eastern percussion and a soprano representing Sofia, the ecstatic female part of the godhead. Significantly that role is given to one of Sir John’s favourite performers, the soprano Patricia Rozario, for whom so many of his compositions have been expressly directed.

Tavener describes the 50-minute Song of the Cosmos as “a sort of crescendo, leading to an incomplete final section, which denotes the summit of man’s reasoning and understanding. We can go no further”.Part-commissioned to mark the 125th-anniversary of the Bach Choir, it joins the BBC Philharmonic for the premiere this Saturday conducted by David Hill.

Two poles-apart composers connected by wanting to say something significant about the ongoing power of religious experience – in their respective ways both seeking to create musical explorations of timeless themes as part of the great tradition of Western music’s liturgical settings, ones continuing to represent visions of eternity.

  • The Last Supper is revived at Glyndebourne from Saturday, 4 August, at 5.20pm (click here for more information)
  • Song of the Cosmos receives its premiere at the Proms on the same evening at 7.30pm
  • Birtwistle’s ’Three Latin Motets’ from The Last Supper is in the late-night Prom 64, 7 September, at 10 o’clock

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