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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (2012)
Text Writer
Leo Tolstoy
Chester Music Ltd
Soloist(s) and Orchestra
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Bass Baritone, Cello
Programme Note
John Tavener The Death of Ivan Ilyich (2012)
“If one wants to be heard, one must speak out from the top of Golgotha,
affirm the truth by suffering, and better yet by death.”

The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a monodrama for bass-baritone, solo cello, two trombones, percussion and strings, – came to me after a long illness. It was one of the first major works that I composed after that time, as though Tolstoy himself was waking me from a long creative sleep. The text is taken from one of Tolstoy’s last and greatest novels. The story of a dying man’s excruciating physical pain and his emotional and spiritual crisis is composed architecturally in an intense and terse manner. A glimpse of light occurs towards the end of the piece, after Ivan Ilyich has examined his miserable life. The work ends with an instrumental Apotheosis.

Click here to hear the world premiere of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, broadcast on BBC Radio 3

Preview the score

  • 17 NOV 2014
    The Death of Ivan Ilyich Country Premiere
    Tchaikovsky Concert Hall Moscow, Russia
    Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra of Russia
    Maxim Mikhailov (bass) Alexander Rudin (cello) Asya Sorshneva (violin) Alexander Korenkov (baritone) Sergey Kalachev "Grebstel" (bass guitar) Vladimir Zharko (percussion) Anton Batagov (piano); Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
  • 07 JUL 2013
    Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
    BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
    Tecwyn Evans, conductor

'...a coruscatingly fearless and compressed dramatisation of Tolstoy's novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich...a piece whose toughness, terseness, and final, hard-won image of transcendence makes it among Tavener's finest achievements.'
Tom Service, The Guardian,27/12/2013
The agonies of the terminally ill Ilyich, desperate for sympathy but unable to accept it, [...] and the eventual emergence of consolation from the initial mood of unyielding sternness was beautifully captured.
Ivan Hewett, The Telegraph,09/07/2013
A brutally dark monodrama based on Tolstoy's short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich. [...] If Tavener's life's work has been a journey towards beatific light, this piece indicates he has no intention of going gently.
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian,08/07/2013
A picturesque and disturbing piece of 30 minutes, it opens broodingly with lower strings and trombone, bringing in percussion before rising in highly agitated strings. Shattering climaxes subside into reflective phases as a man on his death-bed copes with troubled thoughts and extreme pain.
Phillip Radcliffe, The Arts Desk,08/07/2013
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