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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Requiem Fragments (2013)
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Programme Note
John Tavener Requiem Fragments (2013)
John Tavener’s Requiem Fragments is a work of multiple resonances, both literally and figuratively. Literally because of its use of canonic writing, and figuratively because it suggests a number of connections with other music.

One of those connections is made by the title, which suggests Stravinsky’s late Requiem Canticles (1965-6), described by the Russian composer as a ‘pocket Requiem’; the use of the trombones also brings to mind such works by Stravinsky as Canticum sacrum, which cast a spell over Tavener for so long. Another connection is with Tavener’s own Ikon of Light, written for the Tallis Scholars in 1984. That work uses a string trio rather than a string quartet, yet the soft but powerfully yearning quality is common to the writing for both, and canon is also found extensively in both works.

Indeed, it was a renaissance work, the 24-voice Qui habitat by Josquin des Prez, that suggested the intensive canonic writing in Requiem Fragments, Tavener having requested a copy of the score from the conductor of the premiere of Requiem Fragments, Peter Phillips. The Josquin piece is a thoroughgoing circular canon at the unison, the altos at the fifth below, the tenors an octave below, and the six basses an octave below the altos. The detail of its contrapuntal complexity is frequently more visible on the page than audible to the ear and something similar could be said about Requiem Fragments. In addition, Tavener frequently subverts the canon by adding an anchoring pedal – the ison of Orthodox chant, what he referred to as the ‘eternity note’.

Requiem Fragments is a sequence of short movements which alternate scoring and spiritual references. The first, the Introit of the Requiem Mass, begins with strong echoes of Ikon of Light in its arching canon, through the basses simultaneously intone the Hindu/Buddist mantra ‘Om’ as a pedal. The text is sung as an exact canon for double choir, trombones appearing in the central ‘Te decet’, intoning a palindromic melody.

The Kyrie builds from a brief motif sung and played in canon with itself, before the words ‘Atma’ and ‘Sanctus’ are sung together in an explosive section featuring both string quartet and trombones, but it is with ‘Manikarnika’ (a Hindu shrine) that the influence of Josquin makes itself felt, the opening soprano melody forming the basis of a lengthy canon, always at the unison but using different rhythmic configurations, for 11 voices over a B flat drone.

This in turn is followed by ‘Mahapralaya’ (subtitled ‘As rivers flowing back to their source’), another canon, now in 17 parts over a drone on G.

The work ends, after a restatement of ‘Manikarnika’ and the opening, with ‘Requiem aeternam’ sung by double choir; the final chord is an unresolved inverted major seventh, as though the composer were waiting for Eternity to complete the work.

Ivan Moody, 2014

  • 23 SEP 2014
    Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory Moscow, Russia
    Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory
    Peter Philips, conductor
  • 23 SEP 2014
    Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory Moscow, Russia
    The Tallis Scholars
    Peter Philips, conductor
  • 04 AUG 2014
    BBC Proms 2014
    Royal Albert Hall
    The Heath Quartet and the Tallis Scholars
    Carolyn Sampson; Peter Phillips, conductor

“That piece shows Tavener at his most soulful and pensive. It subverts the traditional western requiem structure by leaving out some of the usual elements and replacing them with Hindu acclamations. It builds towards a 17-part polyphonic triumph with a soprano solo soaring over the top - yet its magnificence is muted, as befits the sombre nature of the moment it commemorates.”
Caroline Crampton, New Statesman ,10/9/2014
“It is a miraculous piece: Tavener seems to have found a new eloquence”
Roderic Dunnett, Church Times,10/3/2014
"Requiem Fragments lays out a lighter lustre of exquisite vocals, falling silences and upwardly moving instrumentation.They quickly form, turn inward and curl outward to reveal deep lines of introspection, created by Tavener with the slightest of deep touches in he score."
Peter Lindley, Morning Star,8/13/2014
Tavener, who died last year aged 69, was prolific until the end. The posthumous world premiere of his Requiem Fragments (2013) had not seemed likely to yield anything new. Instead it could hardly have been more striking or original. Taking words from the Requiem mass and Hindu sources, it is scored for string quartet and two trombones as well as voices. The music works quietly through "flat" keys except at moments of radiance, as in the Sanctus (marked "An explosion of joy and bliss"), when sharps and double sharps take over and the harmony expands as if pushing ever outward towards light. A soprano line, serenely sung by Carolyn Sampson, floats ethereally over the choir, who at times sing in gently ricocheting 12 parts, creating a buoyant continuum of sound. If this was Tavener's vision of eternity, we should envy him.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer,8/10/2014
"inspired by a motet by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. Recondite though this might sound, in Tavener's hands the effect is magical." [...] "The result reached a level of sheer sonic beauty rarely achieved in contemporary music."
George Hall, The Guradian,8/5/2014
"proves itself to be the composer’s late masterpiece."
John Allison, Telegraph ,8/5/2014
"Tavener's use of formal trombones like a godly call from on high, a string quartet speaking quietly like an inner voice, and the choir settling on harmonies of resigned acceptance, all add up to a palpable feeling of leave-taking. At the end the music hangs in the air, as if looking out into eternity. There was no need for the BBC's brief, candlelit first world war tribute afterwards, tacked on like an awkward afterthought. Tavener had already said it all."
Richard Fairman, Finacial Times,8/5/2014
"Far from becoming feebler as he faded, Tavener crystallised his style so that Requiem Fragments seems to fuse a lifetime's preoccupations: with gorgeous tonal harmonies that suddenly spread into radient clusters, with tranquillity, repetition, drones and ancient polyphony."
Richard Morrison, The Times,8/4/2014
"Much of this has an intense, intimate beauty that somehow enveloped the vast confines of the Royal Albert Hall."
Nick Breckenfield, Classical Source,8/4/2014
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