Palintropos

Palintropos

1977, 45' Chorus and orchestra

Solo voice: Soprano | Chorus: SATB | Soloist: cello 

Orchestration: 0.1.0.1(cbn) | 1.1.1.0. | timp.perc | pf | str (1.1.1.1.1) 

Languages: Greek, Hebrew

Patmos is a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, close to the Turkish mainland. A writer, John of Patmos, identifies in the introduction to the Book of Revelation a cave on the island, in which a vision was revealed to him by Christ. This author has been otherwise named as John the Apostle, and the location of the miracle as the Cave of the Apocalypse, now a destination for Christian pilgrims. It is on Patmos that John Tavener spent some time following his conversion to Orthodoxy, and where he wrote Palintropos in response to the landscape, and in contemplation of the tradition into which he was so recently initiated.

In the Orthodox Church it is held that the Incarnation — God’s descent to Earth in the human form of Jesus Christ — joined both man and nature with God, lending the former two a redemptive divinity. This is in opposition to the Roman Catholic concept of original sin, which assumes an inherited debt of sin for all humanity and nature itself, tracing back to the Fall of Man. Prior to his Orthodox conversion, Tavener had felt a considerable discomfort with such perspectives within Catholicism; his conversion and subsequent stay on Patmos allowed him to reflect on a new perspective and to respond to his surroundings without this stigma.

Tavener recalled that while on Patmos he would sit for hours outside a monastery, conversing with a monk and observing the changing colours on the surface of the sea. He began to develop a ‘sound-world of pitches, intervals and instrumentation’ with the concept of ‘palintropos’ in mind: a ‘turning-back structure’ essential to the piece, as four almost continuous contrasting sections are divided by pulsating brasses, tam-tam and widely spaced strings. The resonances created by the piano’s sustain pedal are connected with those colours Tavener watched play over the water, and while the piano decorates and occasionally anticipates the rest of the ensemble, it never dominates.

‘Palintropos’, its prefix common to the more familiar ‘palindrome’, can also be translated roughly to a concept of ‘reflexive harmony’, of repetition, continuity and consequence in which a superabundance of any one force will inevitably produce and be tempered by its opposite, thereby redressing the balance. Tavener related Palintropos most readily to the landscape of Patmos and said that this work is the closest he had written to a tone poem, but also that his withdrawal to the island was perhaps a way of tempering the effects of a lifestyle and beliefs with which he had not felt wholly at ease, and of coming, through contemplation, to a deeper understanding of what he felt were his true spiritual — and musical — needs.