The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

2012, 25' Soloist and orchestra

Solo voice: Bass baritone | Solo instrument: cello

Orchestration: 0.0.0.0 | 0.0.1+btbn.0 | timp.perc | pf | str

Following the completion of Tavener’s 2007 piece Towards Silence, a meditation on the four states of being — and therefore also of death — as defined in Hinduism, the composer became very seriously ill. Nicholas Kenyon described the work as sounding closest to the experience of near death as any music he knows, and though of course the extremity of Tavener’s imminent ill health could not have been foreseen during its composition, his subsequent recovery and composition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich somewhat bookended a period marked by deep contemplation of mortality.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is based on the novella of the same name by high-born Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. It was one of the first major works composed by Tavener following his recovery, which he insisted was greatly aided by reading Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and listening to late Beethoven and Mozart. While it was to Mozart’s Mass in C Minor that Tavener literally regained consciousness, it was Tolstoy who lifted the creative pall that had descended during his illness. Though Tavener had read Ivan Ilyich as a teenager, the intervening decades of precarious health and his recent reflection on the fluid nature of mortality during the writing of Towards Silence had heightened Tavener’s receptiveness to the ambivalent plight of the story’s protagonist.

Over his lifetime Tolstoy became consumed by the ideals of pacifism, asceticism, anarchism and a form of Christian ethics that drew much practical direction from the Sermon on the Mount. By the time of Ivan Ilyich, he was firmly attached to the renunciation of the material and social benefits that were his birthright, and his relationship with his wife had deteriorated significantly as a result of the acceleration of his beliefs.

Ivan Ilyich details the decline and death of the eponymous high court judge, whose own life has been dominated by material and social ambition at the expense of his family relationships. While hanging curtains in a new and prestigious apartment, he injures his side and though the nature of his injury remains unknown to a parade of costly doctors, it gradually becomes apparent that he is dying. Terrified by the relentless and mysterious advance of death, Ivan Ilyich rails against his fate, while his wife and family, having decided to evade the subject in favour of attempting to calm him, leave him to contemplate how such a cruel and bewildering end could be inflicted upon one so worthy. Only his peasant servant Gerasim shows him compassion, and during this time it is only Gerasim whom Ivan can abide. However, in the final hour of his life and after three days spent screaming in rage and terror, he is struck by the clear recognition of his own selfishness in the throes of death as well as in life, and pities his family for his treatment of them. He goes willingly to his death in the hope that it might liberate them, whispering to himself that, ‘Death has gone’. In Tavener’s adaptation, a monodrama for bass baritone, solo cello, two trombones and strings, this moment is marked by a musical apotheosis.

There are parallels with the character of Ivan Ilyich in the lives of both Tolstoy and Tavener: Tolstoy, in the unhappy marital relationship caused by the pursuit of his ideals, however at odds they may have been with those of his protagonist; and Tavener, in his experience of severe pain and illness, sometimes without definite cause or cure, and his consequent meditations on the nature of death. The psychologist Mark Freeman wrote that, among much else, Tolstoy’s story is ‘about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life’. The desire to live with meaning motivated all of John Tavener’s lifelong spiritual exploration, and it was often his struggles with serious illness that spurred him to greater connection with his own life.