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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Supernatural Songs (2003)
Commissioned by Sounds New
Text Writer
W.B. Yeats
Chester Music Ltd
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Mezzo soprano [=baritone]
Programme Note
John Tavener Supernatural Songs (2003)
Yeats has been called ‘the most learned of Poets.’ He was learned in the profoundest sense, in the religious sense. Deeply influenced by Hinduism all his life, his late poems are steeped in the Upanishad, and in those imaginary people, created out of the deepest instinct of man to be his measure and his norm. When I listened they seemed always to speak of one thing only: they, their love, every incident of their lives were shaped in the supernatural.’ Unlike T.S. Elliot, who was to identify himself with the European religion, Christianity, W.B. Yeats identified himself with that ‘Oriental’ philosophy the Vedantic tradition, that to the Unity of Being, which the Upanishad have named Self. The supernatural Songs move from a line in Latin about Divine Love, through human love, through Greek myth, into a kind of Hindu ecstasy of being. It then leads into the final two songs, which concern themselves with death, again seen through that fountainhead of spiritual knowledge that it is the heart of Vedic metaphysics. Yeats seemed to scan the entire horizon of human experience of the mystery within whose compel ‘we live and move, and have our being.’ He is for me the supreme artist of the twentieth century.

Supernatural Songs was written for mezzo-soprano, strings, pow-wow Drum, and Hindu Temple Gong. The use of these ‘exotic’ instruments helps to colour the vast horizon of the poetry of this universal poet. The pow-wow drum carries with its vibrations and sound an awesome mystical, and primordial world of which Yeats was a consummate master. The Hindu Temple Gong, is used for its sound but also because of the Unpanishad nature of the late poems of Yeats, and both the primordial Drum and Gong are used because of my own love of Hinduism and the primal metaphysics of the Red Indians.

There is, I hope a quality of both ecstasy, and what Yeats termed his ‘tragic gaiety’ in the music. Where there is love in the music, it is always accompanied by an awesome manifestation, never more so than in the very strange ‘A Nativity’ where Yeats ponders ‘Why is the woman terror struck’ and ‘is there money in that look?’ The reference to the Anti-Christ is suddenly prevalent, as is Nirvana and re-union with ‘Brahman’ in the last songs.

Supernatural Songs represent for me in miniature, a change of metaphysical direction which occurred during the final part of ‘The Veil of Temple’. Not so much as a move away from Christianity, as a realisation the same essential Truths lies hidden beneath the forms of all great traditions. This is an attitude that I share with Yeats, and he is the artist to whom I feel closest in this bewildering age, which in Hindu terms, forms the latter part of that dark age, the Kali Yuga.

Preview the score:

There was a seductive, surprising vitality in Tavener's Supernatural Songs. WB Yeats's lyrics are conveyed on lines of affectless beauty or declamatory glamour, highlighted with shards of high strings or furtive pizzivato cellos, the movements linked by a baleful note in which the friction of bow-hair against a string achieves an almost hypnotic effect.
Anna Picard, The Times,23/05/2014
The concert also featured the London premiere of Supernatural Songs (2002), settings of W.B. Yeats for mezzo-soprano, strings, pow-wow drum and Hindu temple bowl. Sarah Connolly brought a ravishing tone and sure technique, fully deserving the fulsome applause she received. The songs constitute one of the composer's finest achievements: the glorious, soaring violin theme arched over sonorous, cosmic bass-instrument chord-changes in his setting of O Do Not Love Too Long displayed something of John Barry's melodic gift, while the concluding, ravishingly tender meditation on death, Where there is nothing (there is God) was inspired: this was music which truly sounded 'from the other side' in its primordial simplicity.
Paul Conway, Tempo,01/10/2005
Tavener's eloquent score ecompasses vibrant swathes of melody, imposing threnodies, ecstatic tremolandi and coxing pizzicati. The songs must rank as one of the composer's finest achievements: the soaring violin theme arching over sonorous, primeval chord changes in his setting of 'O Do Not Love Too Long' rejoiced in something of John Barry's melodic gift, while the concluding, ravishingly tender meditation on death, 'Where There is Nothing, There is God' was inspired, making the audience hold its breath as the music ebbed away.
Paul Conway, The Independent,25/11/2004
Sarah Connolly tackled the Supernatural Songs with the ECO's strings, pow-wow drum and tam-tam serenely focusing and nuancing their sweetly variegated responses to the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Hilary Finch, The Times,23/11/2004
The best work of the evening was Supernatural Songs which has a rhythmic complexity and a melodic immediacy. The performances were all exemplary, while Sarah Connolly negotiated the deceptively tricky vocal line with great sensuality and spiritual sincerity.
Tim Ashley, The Guardian,22/11/2004
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