Lamentations and Praises
A new work by composer John Tavener
by Martha Ainsworth
John Tavener must be accustomed to confusing music critics; by uniting the ethos of the Orthodox Church and contemplative spirituality with concert music, he frequently perplexes those who listen through the lens of the last 400 years of Western classical music. But Tavener’s enormous popularity shows that critics may be missing the point. The spirituality of his music obviously resonates deeply with many listeners; and his newest work, Lamentations and Praises, written for and recorded by the acclaimed men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer, may become one of his most popular works. For Tavener it represents a move back toward simpler and more intimate styles, after large, dramatic, esoteric recent works like Total Eclipse and Fall and Resurrection.
Lamentations and Praises is a meditation on the death of Jesus, presented in a series of musical “icons.” Its name derives from a service contemplating Jesus’ burial, traditionally held on Saturday morning the day after Good Friday, a service known as “Lamentations” in some Orthodox traditions and “Praises” in others. The closest comparison of form might be The Stations of the Cross, the ancient ritual in which one contemplates the mystery of Christ’s Passion by meditating on a series of images. Lamentations and Praises asks us to consider three such images: Jesus’ body being taken down from the cross; procession to the tomb; and Jesus pulling Adam and Eve up from Hell.
The 70-minute work is in three large sections, each consisting of four parts: Descent from the Cross, Stasis, Thrinos, and Epitaphios. The Descents from the Cross are quiet instrumental interludes or “corridors” that link the larger sections, followed by a station (“Stasis”) or meditation. Thrinos is a keening lament, its anguished wailing evoking ancient Byzantine chants and recalling the women weeping at Jesus’ tomb. The Epitaphios sections are a solemn burial procession, repeating variations of a prayer, “Give me this stranger.” Throughout the duration of the work, bells are struck every twenty beats, representing the eternal presence of God. A flute (representing the Mother of God), string quintet, and trombone round out the sound palette. There is some microtonal coloring throughout the work, but overall it is quite tonal and very approachable.
Although the music stands on its own for its meditative power, the full impact of the work requires the visual element of movement, light and color that is part of its live performance. To the music, Tavener has sought to add visual expression by the use of some simple “staging” if that word can be appropriate to a liturgical context. The New York premiere of Lamentations and Praises was held in the Temple of Dendur, an enormous hall in the Metropolitan Museum of Art housing large stone artifacts from ancient Egypt; an evocatively spiritual setting for this work. Beside the reflecting pool, a small stage awaited, set only with a small wooden arch-shaped frame. Despite the large audience in the large room, the setting was surprisingly intimate.
Having already heard the CD, I was somewhat apprehensive about the possibility of “choreography” intruding upon this very spiritual work, but I need not have been. It was very understated, graceful and tasteful. The language of the color and movement would have been familiar to anyone at home with liturgy. The 12 singers, dressed in pale, plain tunics, entered in a slow, silent procession, carrying two timbers, a bowl, and a folded white cloth. During the instrumental overture, they assembled the two timbers into a cross, and gently set a crown of thorns on it. Each singer reverently kissed the folded cloth and passed it to the next person who did likewise. The tenderness, love and reverence with which they did this brought tears to my eyes. Unfolding the cloth revealed an icon of Jesus printed on it; the cloth represented the body of Jesus for the duration of the work: hung upon the cross, lovingly brought down, and carried to the tomb. The bowl contained herbs with which the “body” was anointed for burial. The wooden archway was revealed as the entrance to the tomb. In this simple setting, movement gave the work an additional dimension.
In one meditation, the 12 singers moved to stand very close to one another, as if they were one large object. Suddenly, images of icons appeared on them - they became the screen, as slides of the face of Christ were projected onto their bodies. It was quite striking and very effective.
In all, this was one of the more amazing concerts I have attended - although I hesitate to use the word “concert.” If there is a place where music, prayer and drama intersect, then this event occupied that space.
The performance of the 12-voice men’s ensemble Chanticleer is breathtaking. This Grammy-winning group is well known for their vocal virtuosity and versatility, both showcased by this work. Chanticleer and Tavener make a harmonious match, and this collaboration is, we hope, the first of many. In Lamentations and Praises, Chanticleer’s range is evident, as we hear the sounds of hauntingly beautiful chorales, esoteric Byzantine chant with microtonal ornamentation, and rustic Greek folk hymns, all from the same twelve voices. The exquisite beauty of Chanticleer’s sound makes it easy for us to be drawn into the music, and through it to its subject.
The music of Tavener and the other “holy minimalists” is not a theatrical event as much as it is a state of being into which one enters for a time. The recording of Lamentations and Praises demands your full and prayerful attention; it is not background music to be played during a dinner party. To fully appreciate its beauty, consider setting aside 70 minutes for prayer; sit quietly, with no other distractions, and allow this music and these words to guide you in contemplation on the death and resurrection of Christ.
This review appeared on Beliefnet.com in March 2002.