On Composers



Mozart – A Celebration

This was recently broadcast on BBC radio3 during a Mozart Festival in January 2011

A lifelong love of Mozart began when I was 12 years old.  My Godmother took me to see The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne.  I was enchanted by the opera and it has continued to overwhelm me with its beauty all through my life.  It’s only been recently, however, that I have tried to understand why I love the music of Mozart beyond that of any other composer, and why I have always talked to him in the bath for as long as I can remember!  I think it’s the eternal child in Mozart’s music that I love – perhaps that explains to some extent the bath conversations!

Mozart belongs to a historical age that doesn’t attract me in the least – an age of superficiality, powdered wigs and the age of the Enlightenment.  To me, it seems unlikely that the most ‘sacred’ composer of the West should emerge in that dilapidated era.  Of course, using the term ‘sacred’ about Mozart may elicit some surprise, but I truly believe that his music can be compared to that particular kind of sacredness that one finds in Persian and Hindu miniature paintings.  I’m not of course saying that Mozart himself was fully spiritually developed; simply that God used this frail man to communicate His eternal vision to the world.

I believe that Mozart’s soul apprehended the theophany that came to him from God.  Unconsciously no doubt Mozart’s soul became aware of the ecstatic vision bestowed upon him.  It was a vision that he could never have explained or understood in words, but a vision none the less that his soul would continuously pour forth in music.

Mozart was faultlessly crystalline, the most natural composer that ever lived.  His melodies, rhythms and harmonies seem as natural as virgin nature itself.  Mozart’s music, one might say, pre-existed.  Are not the piano sonatas like the one we heard at the start of the service a sublime example of this?  The Marriage of Figaro poses as a ridiculous comedy, but it is none other than a constant outpouring of divine ecstasy. Mozart sees the divine in everything.  He hears God everywhere and he sings His ecstasy in every single one of his operatic characters, from Zorastro to Papageno, to the Countess in Figaro and to Don Giovanni himself.  He can not help himself, for like the eternal child that he is, Mozart never ceases to celebrate the ecstatic act of being, and never more so than in the ravishing ‘Et in carnatus est’ from the C minor Mass with its almost tangible femininity, as I hear the blessed Virgin herself soaring in a state of prelapsarian innocence.

When I hear this music I am reminded of Christ’s words of comfort, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’. No-one can fail to be moved by the Christ-like forgiveness in Mozart’s music at the end of Figaro, when the Count asks forgiveness of the Countess, which she freely and generously gives in music of radiant beauty and infinite compassion. The fact that Mozart’s music can evoke all of these things seems to raise him above being a mere mortal, but of course he was deeply mortal; but he truly understood what it was to be human, for in his music he suffers with us, he loves with us, and he even helps us to forgive ourselves, to raise the level of consciousness, to suggest pre-ecstatic states, to temporarily spare our earthly weight, helping us to make our ‘burdens light’.

I recall many years ago in the village where I live in Greece, attending the film Amadeus in the local open-air cinema. The audience in those days comprised fishermen, farmers and a whole host of village-folk who had probably never been as far afield as Athens and surely never consciously heard any Mozart. After the film had ended, almost the entire audience queued up to see the film again. I remember asking them why they were doing this, and they replied ‘we never knew that music could be so beautiful’. Mozart’s music, again unlike any other music, can unite different peoples by its overwhelming beauty, and Beauty is Truth as Truth is Beauty.

Mozart finds beauty and truth in the most amazingly wretched and miserable human situations. I’m thinking of Barbarina’s aria in Figaro. She’s lost a pin she was supposed to return to Susanna, but here Mozart’s music seems to carry all the misery of human existence and transcends it with a divine beauty, and with such simple musical means. In this aria Mozart’s music is not put at the service of a sacred text, but at the service of a simple mundane text ‘I’ve lost it’. To make the mundane sacred, this is a rare thing indeed, and is perhaps Mozart’s greatest gift to mankind.

He alone among Western composers has most perfectly shown me that the true imagination is mystical experience: the creative power of the heart. I realise that many people who are modernists or humanists will have difficulty in accepting this traditionalist view of Mozart.  The humanists and modernists see him purely as part of the historical development of Western music, which inevitably leads to the rotting corpse of modernism and post modernism. By placing Mozart within the Traditionalist perspective, one sees that his music, like the poetry of Dante Alighieri is without decay, paradisial, and permeated with a divine, innocent beauty and love. ‘Tutti i miei pensier parlan d’amore’ sings Dante – ‘all my thoughts speak of love’. And so it is with Mozart, both celestial and terrestrial, in all its pain and all its beauty.

To say that Mozart is a paradisial composer in today’s climate, is a radical thing indeed. For this would compel the modernist to reject totally the hell that they so often express in music and art as well as the hell that is thrust upon us day by day by the media. Seeing Mozart, however, within a timeless, traditionalist context forces the modernist and humanist to understand that Mozart’s reason for being, does not lie within himself as such, nor do his qualities and genius represent an end in themselves.  Indeed, we have to conclude that Mozart was the medium of an archetype of beauty.  God shows himself in everything, and not least in the sublime language of music.  One can only know God through his theophanies.  The soul of Mozart was one, who through God, saw in God with the eye of God.  And this is all we know, and all we need to know.

© John Tavener


A Short Meditation on Webern

Webern’s music is like a distant ray of God, tiny, exquisite, mystical, but too cerebral to communicate with all. No one should have followed him as no one preceded him; his music was unique in its silence. Webern saw his twelve-note rows on plants, as Thomas Aquinas saw angels on pin-heads, but both men were perhaps too cerebral, for as long as we try to find God with our mental state, we have no chance of finding Him. However, above and beyond all reasoning, Webern had direct knowledge of God in virgin nature, for he was undoubtedly a nature mystic. So the means in his music were cerebral but the end was not. Like Bach in ‘The Art of Fugue’, the means produced the transcendent, for it is not Bach’s mathematical contrapuntal procedures that move us, but the wonderfully rich and strange harmonic world that he revealed to us.

Webern was not such a colossal figure as Bach, but in central pieces like the Piano Variations, his early 4 Pieces for violin and piano, not to mention the last Cantata, he showed a wonderful transcendence rarely found in any other composer of the twentieth century. Transcendence and communication had been virtually dispensed with by Webern’s master, Schoënberg. Mahler’s demiurgic passion for externalisation had exploded into Schoënberg, whose music showed the fragmented violence of the human psyche. However Webern had to a certain extent once again raised the level of consciousness, to temporarily spare earthly weight, to reconcile man with creation, and even to help modern man to forgive himself. Indeed, Webern’s music which abounds in mirrors, is like a tiny esoteric mirror of the divine world. The tragedy of the modernists who tried to follow or emulate him, was that they forgot to keep being a mirror, so they shattered his silence in their subversive nihilistic abstractions.

I thank God for the gift of Webern to the western world, for he gave it silence, and the best tribute one can pay to silence is to listen to it.

This inner silence of Webern is such an important gift for me personally. I feel so lonely in a world that only contemplates the fleeting, and the ugly. Most western contemporary music has only anguish, and a kind of repulsion for what it considers in its ignorance to be ‘nothingness’. The east of course soars towards this Divine Vacuity, and I was only thinking this the other night when I was listening to Ravi and Anushka Shankar at the Proms. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I listened to this deeply symbolic and ‘silent’ music – now the experience of listening to Webern can be similar to this. I have no sense of time with both Indian music and Webern. Also, I am aware of ‘qualities’ and ‘states’ in this music, not abstract equations.

Modernism in most of its guises has chosen to follow the path of cyclical and spiritual degeneration. What opposes this terrible darkness is silence and Divine Vacuity, for the silence and the vacuity are light. This is Webern’s greatest gift to me as a composer, for in a mystical sense Webern is not, and God alone is.

© John Tavener


Lennox Berkeley

What a man is prepared to die for, that is the essence of the man. Lennox, I felt, would have been more prepared to die for his religious faith, than for his music, which often caused a misplaced humility in him. Two examples come to mind. One was at a concert in the seventies, where Lennox’s Stabat Mater was being performed alongside some pieces from the Manchester School. After the concert I went up to Lennox to thank him for the Stabat Mater, but he shyly mumbled something about his music being ‘too old-fashioned’. In this context what he had said was absurd. Lennox had created a work of profound beauty, whereas the Mancunians had merely produced serial exercises based on plainsong. There was no question, in my mind, Lennox was the best composer.

Another example of his sometimes misplaced humility was his perennial awe of Benjamin Britten. I remember him saying, time and time again, “Of course Britten does this kind of thing so much better than I do”, and very often, this was true, but it was not true of Britten’s so-called ‘religious’ music. Britten was a humanist, and he never quite rid himself of the ‘ego’. Berkeley, on the other hand, was a Traditionalist Roman Catholic. In this respect, Berkeley was more ‘true’ than Britten, and his settings of traditional Latin texts are superior to Britten. One can hear the deep conviction in Berkeley’s religious music, coming from ‘the one thing needful’. I hope this brief observation may shed some more light on this often misunderstood composer, for where there is any sublimity present, man, being ‘man’, will stamp on it, time and time again.

© John Tavener