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The Whale + Celtic Requiem

John Tavener’s The Whale and Celtic Requiem are two of the most extraordinary records ever issued, certainly on Apple Records, and most likely on any mainstream label. A bold claim, perhaps. But listen first and then decide.

The 1960s are, of course, synonymous with all that was novel and innovative in society and culture, typified by an explosion of radical ideas ripping through film, literature, art and music. But by the end of the decade, this revolutionary mood had yet to permeate through to classical music, the final bastion of the establishment. Even contemporary music, that post-1945 school that by definition was rooted firmly in the now, was doing little that was different or challenging.

John Tavener’s compositions of the period, particularly The Whale, changed all that. Written between 1965 and 1966, it was as if all the pent-up creativity, restrained by classical convention since the Second World War, was suddenly liberated through the agency of this one astonishing, ground-breaking work.

Despite his irregular approach, John Tavener was a product of the establishment, and was publicly educated at Highgate School, in north London, before graduating from the Royal Academy of Music. He looked to Bach and Mozart for his inspiration, as well as one of the 20th century’s leading composers, Stravinksy.

Sir John Tavener remains a profoundly spiritual and religious man, initially focusing on Christianity via its various denominations, but more recently exploring many of the world’s other theological traditions. He embraces religious subject matter as the lifeblood of his music. It was within this context that his maverick spirit broke free.

The Whale is a cantata, a medium-scale descriptive piece for chorus and orchestra. But it was unlike any cantata ever heard before. “Contemporary music at that time was in a cul-de-sac,” says Sir John Tavener today. “I wanted to bring it to a wider audience. The Whale was in the category of so-called serious music, and yet it brings together a wide series of musical styles. It was influenced by people such as The Beatles, the spirit of the times, and I think The Whale certainly had a pop element to it.”

“It was entirely different,” confirms James Rushton, managing director of Chester Music, and John Tavener’s long-standing music publisher. “The Whale uses techniques like serial writing, but it did it in the setting of a very immediate, in-your-face colourful story. It has pre-recorded electronics, a narrator and, at certain points jazz and pop influenced elements. It is very diverse in that way and totally at odds with what classical music expected of the contemporary composer at that stage.”

The Whale tells the Old Testament story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, who disobeys God, flees on board a ship, only to be thrown overboard during a storm by the God-fearing crew. Jonah is swallowed by a whale, and is kept inside its belly for three days. Repentant, Jonah then does as instructed and travels to Nineveh to convert this errant city to the ways of the Lord.

The Whale is a riot of ideas. It revels in unconventional scoring and dynamic sound pictures in its recounting of the biblical story. It opens with BBC radio newsreader Alvar Lidell, one of the most distinctive broadcast voices of the 20th century, as the narrator, reading an encylopaedia entry on the sea mammal “of the order of cetacea”.

The traditional orchestra and chorus are augmented by non-musical instruments such as a whip and a football rattle. “I love the percussive sounds they make”, says Sir John. Five performers are required to shout through loud hailers; and there is an improvised section during ‘In The Belly’ (Track 7), which the score instructs the choir to: “clap hands, neigh, grunt, snort, yawn, make vomiting noises, whisper, cough, shuffle, hum and talk to each other — in any order”.

In 2004, Sir John said: “The Whale is piece written by an angry young man. I was angry because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms. I was also angry because what I saw of so-called classical music in those days was very po-faced. I wrote The Whale as a reaction in a way. The piece is very fantastical.”

The Whale received rapturous accolades that instantly elevated John Tavener from a young composer at the beginning of his career into a fully-formed master at the very top of the contemporary music scene. In a review of a live performance in January 1968, The Observer concluded that it was “an enormous success, and a great victory for those who recognize that modern music is not simply a matter of solemn incantations in the sacred name of tedium.”

Like The Whale, Celtic Requiem, which was written in 1969, is a religious commentary rather than a work that’s overtly devotional, as much of John Tavener’s later music would become. Its musical inspiration is J.S. Bach, quotes from whom are incorporated into Celtic Requiem and interact with Tavener’s own.

“I love it,” says Sir John today of Celtic Requiem. “I love the sound world of it. And I love the idea of it.” The idea is one of contrasts, in which solemn phrases from the traditional Requiem Mass are juxtaposed against age-old Irish children’s rhymes and games that deal with death in an unflinching, matter-of-fact way.

The piece hinges on the rhyme of ‘Jenny Jones’ that John discovered in a book by David Holbrook about traditional children’s games — ‘Jenny Jones is dead / Is dead / She is dead / She is dead // Jenny Jones is dead / Is dead / You can’t see her now!’. “I think it’s the most ancient of those children’s songs,” says Sir John.

Celtic Requiem is theatrical and evocative, and in parts, eerie. There’s another outing for the whip, and with dinner gongs, Aeolian bagpipes, electric and bass guitar augmenting the orchestra, high soprano and children’s choir, it is another daring, unusual work. Witness the immense, dark power of the organ in ‘Requiescat In Pace’ (‘Rest In Peace’ / Track 11), which the organist (Tavener himself) plays a ‘full manual cluster’ by slamming hands and forearms firmly over the entire length of the keyboard; and the nagging children’s chant of ‘Mary had a little lamb / Little lamb / Little lamb / Mary had a little lamb / Her father shot it in the head!’.

John Tavener remains delighted that Apple Records was supportive of his early works. “It was marvellously refreshing because serious music at that time was very humourless and narrow,” he says today, “and if recorded at all, therefore tended to be on very obscure labels. To have Apple take on The Whale and Celtic Requiem was wonderful.”

John had two sponsors at Apple, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. He recalls meeting John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a dinner party one night, where they swapped tapes and exchanged ideas. And Ringo? “I met Ringo at my brother’s house,” Sir John says. At that time, Roger Tavener ran the family’s up-market building firm and was renovating Ringo’s home in Highgate. Sir John adds: “My brother had prepared caviar, but Ringo just wanted a jam sandwich. We finally agreed to record The Whale at that meeting.”

“Ringo came to all the rehearsals and the recordings of The Whale and Celtic Requiem,” adds Sir John. Indeed, Ringo is one of those shouting through a loud hailer in ‘Melodrama & Pantomime’ on The Whale (“…and cause suffocation!” on Track 2, at 0:48). What do you think Ringo saw in your music? “I think it was the wildness. I was less surprised at John Lennon’s enthusiasm, but I was surprised at Ringo’s.”

“John and Ringo were very important to me,” Sir John admits. “They were lovely people. I don’t think I could actually call them friends but they were wonderful people to meet.”

Sir John has been closely involved with this remastered edition of The Whale and Celtic Requiem, first issued in 1970 and 1971 respectively. He has re-presented both works to match how they are shown in the scores. Instead of spanning two tracks as per all previous releases, The Whale has been split into its eight discrete sections. Celtic Requiem, meanwhile, is now presented in three parts, instead of its previous one. For the first time, listeners can now follow on CD the individual elements of these early and most original works.

Says Sir John of The Whale and Celtic Requiem today: “I have been listening to them recently and I find them wonderfully fresh. And enormously accomplished for the time that they were written. I feel very sympathetic towards them.”

The two short supporting pieces on this CD, Nomine Jesu and Coplas, are key early works that John later fully realized into his next major composition, Ultimos Ritos (Spanish for ‘Last Rites’), which was premiered in 1972.

Nomine Jesu is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural meditation on the name of Jesus, which proclaims: “Every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God The Father”. Like Celtic Requiem, it is a ‘static’ work, based on one chord. Its chief inspiration is the writings of St. John of the Cross, a 16th century mystical poet of the Counter Reformation period, when what had once been heresy could again become sacred. The mystical idea of St. John of the Cross — ‘the more I live the more I must die’ — “obsesses me," Sir John has written.

Coplas, too, refers to the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross, in which the bride is represented by the soul and the groom is represented by Jesus. A marriage, then, that is indeed made in heaven. “I love the sacred erotic element of the poetry of St. John’s writings,” says Sir John today. “The idea of God as lover. That was essential and very attractive to me.”

Coplas is a piece of sublime serenity written for choir and tape. It is light of touch and heavy with symbolism. When performed, the choir assemble in a cruciform motif, the shape of the Christian cross (as it does for Ultimos Ritos). The work draws upon the closing chords of Bach’s Mass In B Minor, a tape recording of which is set beneath a slow-motion melody of John Tavener’s own. Over nine minutes, Tavener is slowly absorbed by Bach.

“Ultimos Ritos is about the mystical concept of 'dying to oneself',” wrote John Tavener in the work’s original programme notes. “When Christ calls men, he bids them 'come and die'. I have tried to express this 'dying to oneself' by a simple musical idea.”

John Tavener was knighted by the Queen in 2000 for his services to music. For him, music is not merely artistic expression. Instead, his belief in God and his desire to articulate his relationship with the divine is paramount. “God shows himself in everything that lives,” he has said, “and this includes the sublime language of music.”

“My life has taught me that music has a primordial origin,” Sir John concludes today. “I can’t really explain it. I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God. That’s what I have always tried to do.”


Michael Bremner
Recorded at
Church Of St. John The Evangelist, Islington, London
The Whale Released (UK)
The Whale Released (US)
Celtic Requiem Released (UK)