1973, 110' Opera

Solo voices: 4 Sopranos.2 Tenors.Bass | Chorus: SATB

Orchestration: 4(4pic,afl)+6rec.0.4(2bcl,4Eflat).0 | | 10perc.2timp | hp.2pf(Horg).cel | str

Language: English

Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born in Alençon at the beginning of 1873, to a jeweller and a lacemaker, both devout Catholics. She was an intense personality and struggled throughout her childhood with emotional fragility until at the age of 10, she experienced a kind of attitudinal epiphany that she felt had been worked by God and allowed her to turn away from herself to embrace Him. At the age of 15 she joined her elder sisters as a Carmelite postulant in Lisieux, where she lived and composed numerous prayers, plays and autobiographical notes until her death from tuberculosis aged 24. The events of Thérèse’s life were not of themselves extraordinary, but one of these collections of notes was published posthumously as Story of a Soul. Though heavily edited prior to publication and disparaged by some as displaying an unformed or naïve spiritual approach, Thérèse’s example of what came to be referred to as her Little Way — the constant demonstration and generation of spiritual love by every tiny action — was taken up with extraordinary enthusiasm by many, and the cult of Thérèse quickly grew. In 1914 Pope Pius X signed the decree for the opening of her canonisation, which finally occurred 11 years later.

What drew Tavener to the subject was not what some interpret as Thérèse’s somewhat cloying humility, but the crisis of faith prompted, in the year before her death, by her realisation of the reality of faithlessness for a growing number of people. Thérèse became dismayed and alarmed at the conviction of these incrédules, yet curiosity began to engender doubt whilst both tempting her away from her faith and strengthening, desperately, her will to believe. In addition, a love of the poetry of 16th-century Carmelite St John of the Cross was held in common by Tavener and Thérèse, who viewed Christ as a bridegroom and thus felt for Him a love shaded by something as close to eroticism as a truly devout nun could approach.

It was the musician Clive Wearing who suggested that the composer consider the Song of Songs, a book of the Hebrew Bible in which a man and a woman exchange allusions to the progress of their love through courtship to consummation. Although not explicitly religious, the verses are often interpreted allegorically as a representation of the devout’s relationship with God. This obvious parallel with Thérèse’s style of devotion catalysed in Tavener an outpouring of music, beginning at the end with the ecstatic love duet, the couple here embodied by Thérèse and Christ. Conversely, the work opens at the onset of Thérèse’s illness and confrontation with the void left by her formerly unyielding faith. Tavener binds these extremes by leading Thérèse’s soul on a journey: through prayer for a murderer, through the First World War and the end of the world, before her prostration in the dust and ecstatic union with Christ, who in the guise of her father and alongside the chaotic figure of Rimbaud has been her guide throughout.

Though works written in the short period between Thérèse and his conversion to Orthodoxy were reactions against Roman Catholicism, this was the last wholly Catholic work Tavener would write, and he claimed that doing so extricated him from the ‘spiritual angst’ of this tradition. He felt that musically, the proud, worldly perspective of Roman Catholicism bound him to equally human, contrived and therefore fallible musical systems, of which he wished to rid his expression.