The Whale

The Whale

1966, 32' Chorus and orchestra

Solo voices: Mezzo soprano, Bass, Speaker | Chorus: Children's choir, SATB

Orchestration: 2(pic,afl).2(bcl).2(cbn) | 4.3.3.1 | timp.8perc(cel) | hp.amp.pf.grand org.Horg | str (no vn) | tape

Languages: English, Latin

The Whale, a dramatic cantata, is one of John Tavener’s most prominent works and among his earliest, having been composed when he was 21. While already Tavener’s interest in biblical subjects was quite mature, he was at this time on the cusp of the conviction that there existed, for him, a mode of expression uncompromised by the conventions of formalism. Though born from the biblical allegory of Jonah and the Whale, Tavener’s youthful disillusionment with the classical establishment caused The Whale to escalate into a fantastical expression of dissent, incorporating orchestra, chorus, spoken word, megaphones, plainsong, jazz, football rattles, stamping and rakish brass, all woven with Tavener’s peculiar, measured reverence.

The work opens with the words, ‘The Whale: Marine mammal of the order Cetacea.’ As the narrator continues through this deliberately dry Collins Encyclopaedia entry, the orchestra and chorus begin to lap at the edges until the voice is entirely engulfed in sound, and we are plunged into the biblical narrative in Latin. Tavener sought to balance the surrealistic, ritualistic and more radical elements of the work, and these initial scenes are contrasted with Jonah’s prayer, answered by the cacophonous salvation of his descent into the belly of the whale. Here Tavener parodies his own music, shaping the first four notes of the work into a jazz break and summoning a wild array of sonic effects in a gesture of defiance at what he describes as the ‘intellectual kitchens of Europe,’ treating music as a recipe to be followed.

The music becomes softer as Jonah begins to emerge from the whale, sections dropping out until only the choir and soloists are left. When finally Jonah is vomited onto the sand, the surrealistic depiction of the whale and the work’s ritualistic, biblical foundation are united as the choir urges Jonah forth with a rhythmic stamping, repeating the appeal, ‘In Aridam’ — ‘On to the dry land.’

The Whale was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta for its inaugural concert and released on The Beatles’ Apple Records label the year following its premiere, greatly increasing public awareness both of the piece and of its composer, who was rapidly revealing himself to be very much of his own making. The Whale has enjoyed enduring success, and although Tavener did not regard the work as having borne fruit in his subsequent musical development, this conviction cannot but have spurred his ever more decisive shift away from modernist ideals, thus shaping in some small way his later works.