Akhmatova Requiem

Akhmatova Requiem

1980, 50' Soloists and large ensemble

Solo voice: Soprano, Bass (Baritone) | 3hn.3tpt.3btbn | 2timp.5perc | cel | str

Language: Russian

Akhmatova Requiem was written during 1979, two years after Tavener’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, and is the first work in which Tavener employed the Orthodox tone systems — eight groups of melodic formulae which form the basis of Orthodox chant and song, and which are rotated weekly throughout the year. Rather than adapting the tone systems to non-liturgical purposes, in Akhmatova Requiem Tavener isolates them to direct quotes from Russian Orthodox services, which punctuate his setting of the entirety of Requiem, a major work by revered Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Requiem is a cycle of 15 poems and one prose paragraph that describe the experiences of Akhmatova and the millions who suffered throughout the Great Purge, Joseph Stalin’s regime of repression and persecution during 1936-8. Such persecution had been rife throughout the preceding decades and Akhmatova was notable among the Russian artistic elite for having chosen to stay in her homeland rather than fleeing with other members of her social circle. Though her censure in 1925 made publishing virtually impossible and writing a threat to her life, she did not waste her fierce conviction, continuing to testify in her work to the inhumanity being enacted around her. Though Requiem is not a liturgical text, Tavener was strongly affected by its simplicity of expression, interpreting the poem as essentially a meditation on death, and ‘deeply Russian,’ qualities shared by the tradition with which the composer was at that time familiarising himself through his experiences of Orthodox practice. Akhmatova’s stark treatment of anguish, death and maternal grief also touched on Tavener’s enduring and profound preoccupations with both mortality and the Mother of God, prompting him to follow her theme to a conclusion settled between the two artists’ sensibilities, through the splicing of the original text with prayer from the Russian Orthodox funeral, Resurrection and Good Friday services.

Stylistically, Akhmatova Requiem meets its inspiration in its spartan scoring, assembled by Tavener to convey and amplify the cold, bleak austerity of the poet’s words. The composer described it as ‘monumental in character,’ the soprano part being almost continuously active and pausing only to admit the bass soloist as he intones prayers for the dead. The structure is severe, formal and somewhat ritualistic, with brass, string and percussion driving the vocalists forth on a dark and insidious tide of widely spaced chords reminiscent of Tavener’s early setting of Donne poems, Three Holy Sonnets.

Tavener asserted that Akhmatova Requiem was not intended as a political statement but rather exemplifies what for him was the inevitability of his treating a non-sacred subject in a sacred manner. At the time, the work represented an early step toward Tavener’s comprehension and mastery of tradition in his music and he felt that he had captured for the first time his ‘voice’. Though he later looked upon the non-liturgical elements of the piece as being mired in a contrived idiom, it is clearly if distantly related to the singular style he was to develop, having purged the influence of the Modernism to which he had been unhappily exposed during his latter education.