The Beautiful Names
2004, 70' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Orchestration: 0.0.0.0 | 0.4.2+btbn.0 | timp.2perc(pow-wow drum, 4 Tibetan temple bowls, 4 gongs, very large tam-tam) | pf+org | str (22.214.171.124.4)
The Beautiful Names was written during a period in which Tavener was avidly exploring the Universalist approach to theology, which recognises all spiritual representations as in fact referring to the same source. Universalism encourages positive discussion of the similarities between faiths, rather than focussing on conflicting interpretations. Consequently, The Beautiful Names contains elements of Islam and Hinduism, as well as Native American and Tibetan instrumentation, and cannot but have been informed by Tavener’s own long spiritual evolution.
The 99 names of the title have been drawn from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, for in the Sufi tradition there are 99 ways of referring to God, or Allah, each corresponding to one of His divine manifestations to humanity. They are divided into names of majesty and names of mercy, and can be viewed as universal if one subscribes to the idea that they refer to all manifestations of the divine in the world, rather than to an exclusively Islamic deity.
Tavener said that the music arrived to him after deep daily contemplation of the meaning and sound of each name, echoing the Sufi meditative practice of dhikr. His realisation of the piece was spontaneous and fully formed, ‘never random or chaotic, but seemed to have the logic of cosmic music.’ Tavener decided to structure the work around the Hindu concept of the seven-fold constitution of man, according to which humans comprise four ‘lower’ and three ‘higher’ components. The lower four are of our earthly existence, and perish with our bodies: they are the physical form, energy, emotions and intellect. The three higher parts are pure intelligence, pure love and pure will, and they are eternal and inseparable from the divine.
This produced a sequence of nine ‘zones’ of eleven names each. The first eight of these are preceded and separated by cries of ‘Allah’ as well as canons for either strings, three trombones, or four trumpets with piano and timpani. The final set of eleven names acts as a coda, and is therefore not prefaced. The Native American pow-wow drum represents the drum of the Hindu deity Shiva, being struck every 99 beats until the coda, while the Tibetan temple bowls, gongs and tam-tam represent the Divine Breath. The two choirs reflect this in a mass exhalation that depicts the Sigh of Sadness and Compassion of the Primordial Being, while a string quartet, set at a distance, represents Divine Mercy. Tavener explained that ‘the music abounds in mirrors, thus emphasising the presence of the Divine in His creatures.’