A Gentle Spirit
1977, 45' Opera
Solo voices: Soprano. Tenor
Orchestration: 1(pic).0.1(bcl).0 | 18.104.22.168 | perc.timp | str5tet | tp
The year of Tavener’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy was 1977, and though newly received into a world of tradition with which he felt significantly more at ease, he also felt so disillusioned by the Western civilisation and culture he still inhabited that he found himself somewhat strung between ideologies, with no sure way forward.
He had yet to even begin to assimilate or fully comprehend the enormity of the traditional systems offered by Orthodoxy, which he craved; or to be exposed to the many other musical traditions that would influence his later work. For a composer disinclined to pursue a musical idea unless it can be developed within an hour, the ‘slow and laborious’ progress he made during this time was indicative of this sense of suspension.
The proto-existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was claimed by the composer as one of the only three novelists he could read, the others being the Greek author Alexandros Papadiamantis, and Dostoevsky’s fellow Russian, Leo Tolstoy. During this phase of stasis Tavener’s friend, the Irish playwright and actor Gerard McLarnon, recommended to him the Dostoevsky short story ‘A Gentle Creature’, sometimes also rendered as ‘The Meek One’. McLarnon had written the libretto for Thérèse and Tavener said that by this time he had become accustomed to his collaborator’s ‘rather violent dramatic sense,’ well suited to the sombre story woven by Dostoevsky following the publica- tion in 1876 of a news report on the suicide of a seamstress. In Dostoevsky’s own tale, a pawnbroker first takes pity on and then marries a young woman who repeatedly visits his shop in order to raise money to advertise her services as a governess. Their marriage begins harmoniously enough but soon the girl chafes at the man’s preoccupation with accumulating wealth and they become emotionally estranged. When she falls ill he takes great care over her recuperation and vows to change, rushing out on her recovery to organise passports for a voyage away. When he returns home, the crowd gathered outside his house tells him that she had jumped from the window, clutching an icon. The story was intended as a criticism of what the author called kosnost, the spiritual stagnation engendered by material motivations.
Tavener and McLarnon stripped away much of Dostoevsky’s ‘somewhat rambling’ original, creating a condensed and ritualistic work whose suffocating atmosphere is immediately suggested by a rather askew minor third. Dividing the music are seven ‘remembrances’ of the couple’s life together, culminating in his belated realisation of the root of her frustration with him.
Tavener described A Gentle Spirit as the most angst-ridden work he had yet written, though in a manner less ‘German’ and more Orthodox than previously. He reflected that while he liked both A Gentle Spirit and The Immurement of Antigone, written the following year, they were still mired in a system from which he drew little satisfaction.