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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Innocence (1994)
commissioned by Westminster Abbey
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus a cappella / + 1 instrument
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Soprano, Tenor, Cello, Organ
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Programme Note
John Tavener Innocence (1994)
For, indeed, the creatures who may not take part in sacrifice are forlorn; and, therefore, he makes those creatures here on earth that are not forlorn, take part in it.”
Satapatha Brahmana 1.5,2.4

Nothing can take away the agony and suffering of those people who have done no harm and have suffered atrocities throughout the ages. The great hope for the Christian is the agony of the cross, which suggests that there is a meaning in suffering beyond suffering. For other religions it is not my place to comment, suffice to say that all the great scriptures of the world speak of suffering and of an eschatological paradise: “Remember me O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.”

Innocence is written in memory of all those innocent victims who have died across “the frozen chain of centuries.” It is also dedicated to my dearest friend, Mia Farrow, who in her own way, however small her part, has participated in relieving the innocent. It uses texts form the Gospels, St Ephrem the Syrian, the Old testament, Shakespeare and from Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi.

The work begins in a musical wasteland, seemingly hopeless and without redemption. Words are turned upside down with apocalyptic screams from the organ. The work ends with an echo of this opening, but the suffering this time is inside redemption. All the various streams come from this and flow back into it in the pianissimo canon “The son of man is come to save that which is lost.”

The Performers are divided into four groups. The first consists of the main choir, which carries the narrative of the agony and cruelty of the world, and the organ, which is the symbol of this. Then there is a small group of male voices who sing at the West End of the Cathedral, behind the audience. This group represents all of us, and sings “Have mercy on me O God, and blot out my guilt.” The third group, the soprano and cello or the Holy Wisdom is traditionally feminine and she sings of the eschatological paradise, or of the paradises about which we know nothing. Ideally the soprano and cello should be in a high gallery. Finally, a group of Angels (sopranos and altos) and handbells should be stationed at a great distance; perhaps at the other end of the building, behind the altar. There is also a solo tenor who sings from another high gallery and declaims an Islamic text; a trumpet call to the whole universe, at least to all peoples who have any concept of the divine. The tenor soloist should listen to middle-Eastern singing, both Byzantine and Islamic.
Innocence should be performed in a petrified and still manner; hence the long pauses between the singing of the various groups.

John Tavener

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  • Ensemble
    Westminster Abbey Choir / English Chamber Orchestra
    Martin Neary
The roar on the organ at the start was so apocalyptic that one feared for the very structure of Westminster Abbey. Could John Tavener, in celebrating the great church’s 750th anniversary this year, be aiming to bring it down around our heads? …Here is a composer of extremes in dynamic as in emotion, sharply setting the meditative intensity which marks his own character against high anger at wrongs done… The climax introduces one element after another in glorious crescendo, very much as Britten does at the end of the War Requiem.
Edward Greenfield, The Guardian,01/10/1995
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