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One Equal Music 11

Written by David Bannister, posted on Sunday, July 12, 2020

Music manuscriptCome and abide in us. 

We magnify thee, giver of life 

   O Christ

And we honour thy All-holy spirit 

Whom thou hast sent from the Father

   To thy godly disciples.


Light eternal, light undying;

Shining with almighty power

From the unbegotten light,


Light and life creating;

Light and giver of light;

   Good itself

And fount of goodness;


King of heaven, spirit of truth,

Everywhere present, and filling all things,

Treasure of blessings, and giver of life;


We magnify thee, etc.

Come and abide in us.

Cleanse us from all corruption,

And of thy goodness

Save our Souls.

Text: from various Orthodox services pertaining to the Holy Spirit

The second reading appointed for this morning’s Eucharist (Romans 8: 1-11) calls us to look beyond the confines of our mortal flesh and to aspire to life in the Spirit. Through the ineffable nature of the indivisible Trinity we see a direct link to God the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ. Christ condemned sin in the flesh by suffering for us on the cross, before dying and rising to new life.

An apt piece, which serves to illuminate the passage from Romans in the form of a compelling petition, is ‘A Hymn to the Holy Spirit’ by John Tavener (1944-2013). Commissioned by Channel 4 Television, and written for the Cathedral Choir, the work received its première in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia in the presence of His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios at a televised performance.

Veritably ecumenical in his approach to the Christian faith, Tavener was brought up in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, flirted with Catholicism, before eventually finding a home in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. A strong religious faith inspired the majority of his output, a fact clearly stated in the published forward to our chosen piece with the words ‘without the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, no art concern with the sacred could exist’. Towards the end of his life, however, one might say that he was closer to being a Universalist, with wide ranging influences serving to inform an impressive body of work.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is often compared to Tavener, with the latter recognising in Pärt ‘a kindred spirit’. Aside from much of their work being underpinned by a deep faith, their compositional techniques have followed a similar path. This has led C20th scholars to ascribe them leadership status in the school of ‘Holy Minimalism’: a group of composers who have been influenced by religious subject matter, and combining Medieval and Renaissance approaches to composition with that of minimalism.

Nowhere is textural transparency clearer than in the works of Pärt and Tavener, where the words are given space to ‘speak’ and served by an almost poetic approach to the music, which tends to be free of frivolous and unnecessary clutter. Such an approach lends itself well to religious works which are intended as part of a liturgy, in which profound theological concepts are set forth, and where a sparseness, in one form or another, and timelessness can better convey a sense of the divine.

‘Early music’, as touched on above, has a firm place within Tavener’s style and here, in ‘A Hymn to the Holy Spirit’, we see its pervading influence. The work, for example, opens with a massive statement intended to invoke a sense of awe, employing all eight voice parts, and with clear word painting which, with its cascading figure, invokes the Holy Spirit to ‘Come and abide in us’ here on earth below. This, perhaps, is the musical equivalent of an illuminated capital, which one might find in a medieval manuscript. In addition, the use of such widely spaced musical lines brings to mind the Tudor votive antiphon, examples of which one might find in the Eton Choirbook.

The Tudor influence goes further and can be observed on a structural level with the work written in a largely sectional way. The use of chant based textures pays homage to a centuries old tradition, in this case drawn more from the music of the Orthodox Church.  This can be heard at the opening ‘We magnify thee’, with the technique of organum (found in music of the Middle Ages, where other voices add harmony to the chant) being employed to embellish subsequent iterations of the chant like melody. These are just a few brief examples of the clever use of technique serving to create a work which, essentially, speaks for itself in a typically (for Tavener) transcendental and ecstatic manner, and which ultimately asks us to look beyond the confines of our mortal flesh and to aspire to look beyond ourselves.

Recorded by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral in 1992, directed by Stephen Darlington, please click on the link to listen.