Supernatural Songs

Supernatural Songs

2003, 30' Soloists and orchestra

Solo voice: Mezzo soprano (=baritone) | Orchestration: pow-wow drum.Hindu temple gong | str (8.8.4.4.3)

Language: English

William Butler Yeats, cited by Tavener as having been called ‘the most learned of poets,’ his entire life immersed himself in the spiritual and the occult. At just 27 he wrote that, ‘If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word... The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.’ This preoccupation with mysticism would continue to infuse his later writing, one significant component of which was an interest in Hinduism which, once established as a new dimension in his work, both resonated with and repelled readers, the latter group including critics who dismissed such works as lacking intellectual credibility.

While Tavener did not draw explicit parallels between Yeats and himself, it was this common thirst for the supernatural that rendered Yeats, for him, ‘the supreme artist of the 20th century’, and the one with whom he felt the greatest accord. In their ceaseless spiritual explorations, both found inspiration and enriched perceptive and expressive capacities; and, in their latter Universalist approaches, a means of circumventing the distortions imposed by popular intellectualism.

Yeats’ late poems are steeped in the Upanishads, a collection of over 200 philosophical texts considered to be the basis of modern Hinduism. In Tavener’s work, this influence is reflected in the orchestral timbres employed to colour Yeats’ texts, which comprise three excerpts from his Supernatural Songs, interspersed with excerpts from a further three poems. These are bookended by the entirety of Do Not Love Too Long, and a single line from Yeats’ play, Where There Is Nothing. The whole begins with a line in Latin from St Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, commonly rendered in English as, ‘Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Late have I loved you!’. This is possibly a reference to Tavener’s interest in Universalism having followed a number of earlier and more specific spiritual affinities.

Tavener chose the pow-wow drum’s primal character to represent mysticism, while the Hindu temple gong embodies the influence of the Upanishads on Yeats’ poetry. Both of these instruments also have significance in the context of Tavener’s own deep respect for both Native American and Hindu metaphysical thought. From St Augustine’s exclamation on Divine Love we are drawn by the synthesis of text and music through human love, Greek myth, Hindu ecstasy, and death, resulting in a description of Tavener’s view of the ‘vast horizon of human experience’ encompassed by Yeats’ own artistic vision.

Tavener’s intention in Supernatural Songs was to express the qualities of ecstasy and what the poet termed ‘tragic gaiety’ realised in Yeats’ Universalist approach. For the composer, this work represented, in miniature, the shift in metaphysical thinking that came over him whilst composing the latter part of The Veil of the Temple some months earlier.