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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Total Eclipse (1999)
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
40 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
treble, countertenor, tenor, saxophone
Programme Note
John Tavener Total Eclipse (1999)
TOTAL ECLIPSE is a 'metanoia' which in Greek literally means 'change of mind' or 'turning around' or 'conversion'.

'It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me'.

These are the words of St Paul after his 'blinding' conversion on the road to Damascus. It is an Ikon, everything in TOTAL ECLIPSE is related metaphysically, whether it be voice, instrument, timbre, rhythm, or melody. The music is not 'dramatic' in the western sense, but rather an esoteric contemplation of 'metanoia' using the conversion of St Paul to give it structure and indeed meaning. The manner of playing and the spacing is of the utmost importance. For instance, St Paul is symbolically represented by a soprano saxophone and a countertenor. The music begins with the Crucifixion of Christ, but although loud, awesome and terrible, it is also 'shining' because by his death Christ overcomes death. The descending chord is a descending but perfect chord of the spheres. The notes of the strings play this, so do the baroque trumpet, baroque trombone and the three sets of timpani spaced in cross formation.

So although the music is intended to be fearsome, terrifying and awesome, the sounds of 'rocks' and 'earthquakes' are all in the deepest sense, Divine. Only Saul is 'dissonant' or 'off target' and his 'saxophone' screams abuse, as part of the 'lawless synagogue'. At this point the saxophone should be played in a deliberately 'anarchic' manner, totally devoid of purity, full of hate and 'delinquent' loathing. He should play apart from the main group, possibly to the side. He should then move to the chorus which ideally should be 'unseen' and behind a screen. This is to 'objectify' their comment, always sung in Greek and always identifying states, spiritual or otherwise. Here representing the 'state' of the mindless crowd singing with the 'mindless' saxophone we hear the word 'crucified' - but this has nothing to do with Western passions. It again is metaphysical and is represented by an even falling series of dominant sevenths taking us into a 'hellish realm' while Christ hangs serenely on the cross, symbolised by the 'sacred' string chord as 'King of Glory'. Then follows a heavenly-hellish outburst. After this, the voice, baroque oboe, Tibetan temple bowl and great tam-tam representing Christ are heard from the 'heavens'. Whenever Christ utters he does so from a high and central point. Saul/Paul (the saxophone) does not know how to respond. The responses are still 'off-target' but clearly less so.

Therefore the 'ritual of metanoia' requires that the saxophone moves nearer to the high gallery and the delinquent tone is very slightly being 'changed'. This is the end of the first part.

The second part begins with the choir singing the word 'metanoia' from a great distance, preferably behind. The saxophone responds more and more until the first ritual 'blinding' by light. These ritual 'blindings' are separated by a dialogue between Christ and Saul, until the chorus sing 'and when he opened his eyes he saw no man.'

The third part begins with a solemn duet between the oboe and the saxophone. This frames the third part. 'It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me'.

There follows 'echoes' between Christ and Paul which symbolise the teaching coming through Christ into the mouth of Paul.

The fourth part is a mirror of the first, but much quieter. It is not the 'cosmic' crucifixion, but the serene death of a martyr who has become so close to Christ/God that his execution is a 'dying into Christ' and into life eternal. But there is also a warning - the second coming sung pp by the chorus.

The scoring is for baroque orchestra with saxophone, baroque timpani, 2 sets of chromatic timpani, one baroque oboe, one baroque trumpet doubling modern trumpet, one baroque trombone, Tibetan temple bowl, very large tam-tam, hand bells, baroque strings, boy treble solo, countertenor, tenor and chorus. The music should be performed in a 'petrified ecstasy'.

It is written in memory of Father Paisios whose humble and holy image was in front of me while I was writing the last pages of TOTAL ECLIPSE.

John Tavener

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    Admy of Ancient Music/ Choir of New College Oxford
    Patricia Rozario, soprano / John Harle, saxophone
    Paul Goodwin / Edwin Higginbottom
    Harmonia Mundi:
  • 03 MAR 2018
    Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, Princeton, NJ
    Princeton University
    Gabriel Crouch, conductor
  • 18 MAR 2009
    Nuremburg, Germany
    Kirchenmusik in Lorenz
    Matthias Ank, conductor

Total Eclipse has bouts of violent articulation and thunderous timpani, but they are done with far-flung deployment across the transepts and behind the dome. The result is a well-judged, gripping and completely audible impact. John Harle's screeching saxophone metamorphosed into tender melody (the piece is about the conversion of St Paul) and the heart of the score was a series of little Stravinskian trios for saxophone, tenor (James Gilchrist) and counter-tenor (the highly expressive [Christopher] Robson again), interspersed with luminous choir and a confident, vibrant solo treble (Max Jones). Once again, Tavener has made something fresh, new and timeless from apparently basic elements.
Robert Maycock, The Independent,01/06/2000
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