1993, 20' Solo voice and small ensemble
Solo voice: Soprano | Orchestration: string quartet, alt. version solo cello
John Tavener has twice set the works of the Russian-Soviet Modernist poet Anna Akhmatova, first in 1980 with the entirety of her Requiem, then again as fragments of poetry gathered from the span of her career and assembled into Akhmatova Songs, ‘a sort of cycle.’ Akhmatova was one of the very few artists who remained not only in Russia during the Stalinist purges, but true to her convictions against the regime. These were frequently expressed, in varying degrees of explicitness as the political climate allowed, throughout her lifetime. Akhmatova’s attachment to her country extended to a deep respect for her compatriot writers: the Romantics Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, and her contemporary and close friend Boris Pasternak, who himself was imperturbable in his refusal to yield to Stalinist pressure to condemn his colleagues. A direct appeal to the leader by Pasternak during the Great Purge resulted in his name being personally removed from the execution list by Stalin, who warned his subordinates: ‘Do not touch this cloud dweller’ — or so Pasternak claimed. Her brief odes to these artists are flanked in Akhmatova Songs by poems acknowledging the Florentine writer and thinker Dante Alighieri, in whose work and persecution by Florentine authorities Akhmatova and her contemporaries developed an acute interest, drawing parallels with the Florence of Dante’s time and the St Petersburg of their own, and further, with their treatment by the Soviet state. Dante, written at the onset of the Great Purge and in the same year as Boris Pasternak, here opens Tavener’s work, superficially describing the poet’s integrity in preferring exile over the terms of return offered him by the government, while allegorically commenting on the conditions imposed by Stalin on the likes of Akhmatova. Death, which here closes the sequence, again mentions the author of The Divine Comedy as Akhmatova relates an exchange with the Muse: ‘I say to her: “Did you dictate to Dante The script of Hell?” She answers: “I.”’
In implying that her muse is identical to that which delivered to Dante his description of the Inferno, Akhmatova likens Soviet Russia, and her task of recording it, to the Italian poet’s rendering of Hell. Tavener also notes that Death is indeed Akhmatova’s yearning anticipation of her own inevitable demise.
In the central Couplet of Akhmatova Songs, the poet voices, in the stark, precise language to which Tavener is so drawn, her indifference to praise, and it is this simple precision, born of the classical tradition, that Tavener has sought to reflect in his settings for soprano and cello. It is not until Death, at the close of the work, that the musical material is layered to create a more complex climax.
Soprano Patricia Rozario, for whom the Songs were written, in part inspired the use of an Indian raga, or melodic mode, as the basis for one of the Songs. Beyond such choices, Tavener feels that works of this period marked a departure from human emotion as a creative force in his work. Instead he references the Platonic — and Christian — idea that music already exists, as created by a higher agency, and that it remains to be found by an artist once the effects of ego have dissipated.