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