Three Holy Sonnets
1962, 15' Soloists and orchestra
Solo voice: Baritone/2hn.2tbn/timp/str
A deep consciousness of death for most of his life informed John Tavener’s musical expression. Three Holy Sonnets is an early example of a preoccupation that influenced many of his subsequent works, either through the direct contemplation of a person’s death or habitual meditation on its broader spiritual implications. Recalling the first performance of the work, Tavener described it as ‘the first real sound of me,’ and the only music of that early period with which he could clearly associate later compositions. The wide spacing of chords, restrained vocal writing and measured silences all contribute to the ethereal gravity that permeates Tavener’s broader musical idiom.
The early works of the Jacobean English satirist, lawyer, priest and metaphysical poet John Donne often orbit the preoccupations of his own youth — women, literature and travel — and tend toward the ironic and satirical, moods with which he displayed a formidable dexterity. While John Tavener’s early works are not quite so openly hedonistic, pieces such as 1966’s The Whale demonstrate the ripening of a healthy distrust of the status quo — musically at least — that is reminiscent of Donne’s. Tavener’s contemplation of mortality, however, was rather more precocious than that of Donne, and by the age of 15 he had set the poet’s sonnet, Spit in my face you Jews, for voice and organ. During later studies under Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music, Tavener was encouraged to create a triptych of Donne’s sonnets. Death be not proud and I am a little world were set alongside the earlier work and the whole orchestrated to create Three Holy Sonnets, which received its first performance by the London Bach Society under Paul Steinitz.
Spit in my face you Jews urges Christian readers to recall that Christ, having committed no sins of his own, died for theirs. To forget and continue to sin renders them both more guilty of his crucifixion than its perpetrators, and more deserving of such a death than he. Tavener admitted that it was a ‘very severe’ text for someone of 15 to be drawn to, but the appeal of Donne’s tenor evidently endured for the young composer, the death of whose maternal grandmother also influenced the inclusion of Death be not proud in 1962.