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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

The Beautiful Names (2004)
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
1 Hour 10 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Tavener The Beautiful Names (2004)
“The Beautiful Names of Allah (God) are proof of the existence and oneness of Him. O You who are burdened and troubled with the weight and suffering of the material world, may Allah make His Beautiful Names as soothing balm for your wounded hearts”. So writes Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Terrahi al-Halveti. The 99 Names of Allah as culled from the Qur’an have formed the basis and inspiration of my work The Beautiful Names. The 99 Names are universal, insofar as they are theophanies of the eternal Primordial Being. A companion of the Prophet Mohammed said “I never saw anything without seeing God”. Man’s mission, therefore, is to join the vision of the ‘Outward’ (the tangible) to the ‘Inward’ (the spiritual). This is the aspiration of The Beautiful Names. And perhaps, by doing this in the language of music, one may contribute a little to an inward healing of the appalling strife that permeates the modern world.

Musical note
The Beautiful Names came to me as a vision. I contemplated the meaning of each of the Names as well as the sacred sound of the Arabic, and the music appeared to me spontaneously. The music that came to me was neither chaotic nor random, but seemed always to have an inner logic that frequently related to ‘cosmic music’ or Music of the Spheres. I decided quite early on to base the structure of the work on the sevenfold constitution of Man as taught by Hindu theosophy. This causes the main part of the work to be arranged on conjunct triads, i.e.:
1. D Atma The Absolute
2. B Buddhi Being
3. G Manas Matter
4. E Kama Rupa Life
5. C Linga Sharira Soul
6. A Prana Life
7. F Sthula Sharira Matter
8. D Atma The Absolute
9. D Atma The Absolute

Hence, nine Tonal Zones of eleven names make up the structure of The Beautiful Names.
The Divine Names fall into two categories, those of majesty and those of mercy, and all are declaimed by the solo tenor and/or choirs. The first eight sets of eleven names are prefaced by magisterial cries of Allah, and are separated by Interludes with ejaculatory outbursts of that Supreme Name, together with rigorous canons for either strings, three trombones, or four trumpets with piano and timpani. The last group of eleven names,
however, acts as a Coda, and therefore it is not prefaced in the same way. There is almost no repetition in the entire work. The pow-wow drum of the American Indians represents Shiva’s drum, sounding every 99 beats until the Coda, as the permutations of the Tibetan temple bowls, gongs and tam-tam represent the Divine Breath. This connects with the Sigh of Sadness and Compassion of the Primordial Being, which is depicted by the exhaling of breath by the two choirs, while a somewhat distant string quartet contemplates the Divine Mercy. The music abounds in mirrors, thus emphasising the presence of the Divine in His creatures.

I should like to thank Mr Michael Macdonald, distinguished Arabist and Fellow of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Oxford, for his constant help with the pronunciation and stress of the Arabic words. Also my gratitude goes to the late and venerable Dr Martin Lings for his inspiration, and last, but certainly not least, to Catherine Schuon for her generosity and encouragement in the project.

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...there are moments of great choral splendour and incisive orchestral commentary...
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,22/06/2007
...its defining character was evolution and variety. Most of the names were treated with miniature inventions for solo, chorus and orchestra in turn, almost every time different in texture and melodic shape, and with some arresting unique feature. This tour de force of creative fecundity was taken further in piquant interludes for orchestral groups [...]. If Tavener were to write nothing else, this would surely stand as a summation of what he has tried to achieve.
Robert Maycock, The Independent,21/06/2007 have to acknowledge his [Tavener's] persuasive powers, especially when it comes to writing for massed voices. All the old Tavener habits of wide spaced triadic chords moving in simple rhythms are here. But so, too, is some inspired orchestral writing in this tightly structured work.
Fiona Maddocks, Evening Standard,20/06/2007
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