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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

The Whale (1966)
commissioned by the London Sinfonietta for its inaugural concert
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
32 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano, bass, speaker
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Programme Note
John Tavener The Whale (1966)
This was the first idea which came to me: these notes and the rhythmic interversions form the basis of a fantasy on the Biblical allegory ‘Jonah and the Whale’. A fantasy which grew around the text from the Vulgate, and at times moved so far from it that I decided to call the piece The Whale.

Sanctus bells was another sound from which the piece grew, and a chance purchase of some bells proved their pitches and intervals to be relevant to the music.

Ideas were very abundant in the first stages of The Whale, and I owe a great deal to the constant enthusiasm and encouragement shown at this and at all times by David Lumsdaine.

The ‘fantasy’ grew and perhaps at times nearly ‘swallowed’ the biblical text; so the swallowing of Jonah became almost ‘literal’ in a musical sense.

The sections which are pure ‘fantasy’ in The Whale are informed by a deliberate monotony, and are always characterised by a rather dry ‘drum-beat’. These sections occur three times in the piece, first at the beginning, then at the middle of the ‘Melodrama and Pantomime’, in a very soft bell-like passage representing the storm, and finally towards the end of the prayer when Jonah is in the belly of the Whale.

The Whale was a very exciting musical experience for me, and the composition of it took over a year with only a few interruptions. It may be of superficial interest to note that I visited Cornwall at the height of winter in an abortive attempt to see a real whale.

The Whale seems musically a long way from me now, but it was something that I had to write and if its youthful exuberance seems excessive, I still stand by it.

I completed The Whale fifteen years ago in Tythe Barn, the home of Lady Birley to whom the work is dedicated.

John Tavener
Revised August 1983

Preview the score

  • Ensemble
    London Sinfonietta / London Sinfonietta Chorus
    David Atherton
  • Ensemble
    London Sinfonetta / London Sinfonietta Chorus
    June Barton, sop, Anna Reynolds, mezzo, Margaret Leusky, mezzo, Raimund Herincx, bar
    David Atherton
It is a work of its time. And yet, with its original conductor, David Atherton, on the podium, this performance made it seem as fresh and crazily inventive as ever.
Erica Jeal, The Guardian,29/08/2008
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