Beauty in Death
Three Holy Sonnets, 1962, 15' Soloists and orchestra
Ultimos Ritos, 1972, 50' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch, 1972, 13' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Akhmatova Requiem, 1980, 50' Soloists and large ensemble
Requiem, 2007, 35' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Towards Silence, 2007, 30' Large ensemble
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 2012, 25' Soloists and orchestra
Tavener once stated that his subject was ‘the sacred in art: art that is athanatos — without death, without change, without beginning and without end.’ The ‘sacred’ here is identical with the concept, common to almost all religions, of an ultimate and unchanging reality, from which all living beings originate and to which they return through the death of their physical form. The role of bodily death in spiritual life always occupied a profound place in Tavener’s consciousness, particularly since the first significant religious experiences of his late adolescence. There was no morbidity to be detected in this preoccupation; rather, it was a reverence for death as the gateway to this reality, however it may be called across the various religious traditions. All these traditions seek to contextualise life within the broader journey of the soul which, when it is separated from its earthly vessel, is also separated from the minutiae of the phenomenal world and opens to a broader truth. It then variously begins again, or ascends to join an eternal enlightenment. In this way, death is not an end but a transition, for better or worse and, in traditions such as Christianity, as dictated by the life lived. A degree of this enlightenment might be achieved during worldly existence if one is able to ‘die to oneself’ — to discard human cares and contrivances and become a vehicle for this higher entity — and indeed this is the aim of ascetics of any religious order. Death, both to oneself and the world, allows the soul to be, as Tavener put it, ‘more intensely alive’ to the truth of existence.
Tavener’s own appreciation of death was moulded and coloured over the decades of his spiritual explorations, and many of his works have this theme in common: Three Holy Sonnets (1962) sets John Donne’s texts dealing with the Crucifixion and challenging Death itself; Towards Silence (2007) was inspired by the French metaphysical author René Guénon’s exposition of Brahman, the Hindu concept of an absolute reality; Requiem (2007) is encapsulated in the statement that, ‘Our glory lies where we cease to exist’; and Ultimos Ritos (1972), Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch (1972), Akhmatova Requiem (1980), Eonia (1989), Song for Athene (1997) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (2012) are all, to varying degrees of explicitness, meditations upon the subject.