I Spit in my face
II Death be not proud
III I am a little world made cunningly
From an early age, Tavener was drawn to the contemplation of death and the expression of grief in art and music. John Donne's metaphysical vision of sinful earthly life and eternal redemption strongly appealed to the young musician, who forged a setting of the Holy Sonnet I AM A LITTLE WORLD for voice and organ while he was still a pupil at Highgate School. He revisited the work in 1962 during his first year at the Royal Academy of Music, rescoring it to two horns, trombone, bass trombone, timpani and strings. Lennox Berkeley, Tavener's composition tutor, encouraged him to create a triptych of Donne settings. Thanks to Berkeley, the completed work was shown to and admired by Paul Steinitz, who programmed it in one of his London Bach Society seasons. The THREE HOLY SONNETS OF JOHN DONNE received their premiere performance under Steinitz's guidance at the London church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great on July 1964.
Tavener later reported to his friend and biographer Geoffrey Haydon that the THREE HOLY SONNETS were, 'The first real sound of me. The only music I really love out of that period. It has gravity, it has something of all the pieces I've written since. So much of the music has been influenced by the death of people close to me.' In the case of the THREE HOLY SONNETS, the demise of Tavener's maternal grandmother influenced the selection of SPIT IN MY FACE and DEATH BE NOT PROUD to stand alongside his earlier Donne setting.
In 1999 Tavener wrote, 'I can recall the actual sound of that piece; the spacing of the strings absolutely knocked me for six. I can still hear it in the music I write now at the age of fifty-five, some forty years later. I can still recognize the way I space chords. I recognize it much more in Donne Sonnets than in subsequent pieces.' The widely spaced, ethereal string sound that prevails throughout the THREE HOLY SONNETS and the stillness so often reserved for words that other composers might have set in a powerful, declamatory style suggest a common link between the apprentice composer's burgeoning musical language and the sound world of Tavener in the years since his conversion to the Orthodox fatih.
© Andrew Stewart