The Music of Silence
A Composer's Testament

Edited by Brian Keeble

faber and faber

Copyright © 1999 John Tavener. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-571-20088-5


List of Illustrations...............................................ix
In Retrospect
    Elemental Sounds.................................................1
    Shock Tactics and Soupy Tunes...................................17
    From Rome to Patmos.............................................32
    Uncreated Eros: Uncreated Light.................................42
    `I'm just a piece of music'.....................................64
Blow Up the Concert Hall and the Opera House!.......................91
A Land of Poets and Ikons..........................................107
Liquid Metaphysics.................................................119
Music and Revelation...............................................130
Shaping the Resonances.............................................139
Six Commentaries
    Mary of Egypt..................................................164
    The Toll Houses................................................169
    Short Choral Works.............................................173
    The Apocalypse.................................................175
    Fall and Resurrection..........................................176
Chronological List of John Tavener's Compositions..................189
Select Discography.................................................196

Chapter One

In Retrospect


Music was the first thing I was aware of. I cannot remember a time when there was no music in my life. The earliest influence upon me was the sound of the elements. I hated sight-reading, or being taught any of the grammar of music. From the age of three, I used to improvise. We had little concerts, my maternal grandfather and I: he would pretend to be an audience, he would clap, and I remember I made the sound of rain, the sound of wind, the sound of thunder — elemental sounds on the piano: God knows what they sounded like. So it was with improvisation that I started.

    Then I was taught the piano. The idea of being taught never appealed to me very much, because I thought I could find out musical tunes with my ear. That has guided me throughout my life.

    My paternal grandfather, who owned a building business, had a huge studio in Hampstead, and I used to think the Christmas tree there was as big as the one in Trafalgar Square. It was a very grand, wood-panelled studio in Hampstead, built to entertain important clients of his business. I am not sure of the reason for putting the pipe organ in. He was musical; he liked the sound of the organ. Certainly at that period of my life I liked the sound of the organ. Nowadays, I cannot stand the sound of the monster. There was a piano, a double bass and my father's cello, my cousins brought along recorders and other instruments at Christmas, so we made a very merry noise. My father (who later carried on the family building business) played the cello and the organ, my paternal grandfather played the violin, my aunt played the piano, my uncle the double bass, and we used to sing and play together, with me playing on grandfather's pipe organ in the studio. I'll never forget those Christmases. They were enchanted.

    I also remember when I was only three my mother was in hospital giving birth to my brother. My nanny told me that I listened endlessly to a 78 r.p.m, record which had the massed Manchester schoolchildren, conducted by Sir Hamilton Harry, singing on one side `Nymphs and shepherds, come away' and on the other side `Brother, come and dance with me' from Hänsel and Gretel by Humperdinck. I played it endlessly; it was almost a ritual. I had to hear it all the time. Maybe that was an expression of the fact that my mother was away and music was a great comfort to me.

    This was my first introduction to the sound of a choir, and I can still, at the age of fifty-five, be moved by hearing that 78 r.p.m. record, but not because of the intrinsic quality of the music. What I love most of all is the sound of those massed children's voices with the inimitable accent of the fifties. This endless repetition of hearing a piece of music was important.

    My mother's brother — and my father, for that matter — used to take me to the Albert Hall to hear Bach's St Matthew Passion. I shall never forget it. There was no applause, it was a very solemn Lenten occasion in those days. There were five hundred in the Bach Choir; Kathleen Ferrier was singing the contralto part and Peter Pears was the Evangelist, with Dr Reginald Jacques as the conductor. He used to sit, I seem to remember, to perform it. I shall never forget the opening sound, especially played by these large forces on non-period instruments. I think the very opening, just before the choir comes in, is one of the most beautiful sounds in all music. I remember thinking so at the time. And the effect of the St Matthew Passion was of a religious experience; it was all I knew of religion — just Bach.

    I was also listening to Handel at this time, in the form of Thomas Beecham's orchestration of Solomon. Again, I listened to it entranced. I still do the same thing today but on period instruments. I go on listening and listening. I was, and still am, amazed by the sound of Solomon, the magic of the sound, the mystery of the sound. It's nothing intellectual: I don't think it ever has been intellectual with me. It was this mystery, and it was my ear that was picking up this wonderful music.

    But by far the most powerful musical experience I had at this time was hearing Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum. I heard the first broadcast performance from St Mark's, Venice, when I was twelve years old. That completely overwhelmed me, and made me really want to compose. For two or three years after it, I was imitating the sounds that I'd heard. It was an aural experience. I was just bowled over by the sound of it. Many years later I think I could explain why, but at the time I was shattered by its austerity.

    I had heard things like the The Rite of Spring, Petrushka and The Firebird, of course. At that time I was collecting records and listening to a lot of Stravinsky. But none of it had the impact on me that this broadcast of Canticum Sacrum had. I subsequently managed to get hold of a very old Oiseau Lyre recording — the best performance I have ever heard — performed in acoustics similar to St Mark's, Venice. I think it needs to be performed in such an acoustic.

    My knowledge of music during these years also came from concerts. I remember my parents taking me to Lucerne. I heard Karl Böhm conducting Beethoven symphonies; they didn't make a great impression on me. I heard Ernest Ansermet conducting Stravinsky, again in Switzerland, with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The Stravinsky pieces had a deep effect on me; I recall hearing in those days Apollon Musagète, the neoclassical Stravinsky. It was a curious mixture of Handel, Stravinsky and of course Bach.

Lady Birley, whom I came to think of as my godmother, took me for the very first time to Glyndebourne when I was twelve. In so many ways 1956 seems to me such a significant year. She looked like a wild gypsy; she was very beautiful. She had an Alvis car, I seem to recall she was swathed in scarves and we drove open-top to Glyndebourne. These were the really great days of Glyndebourne when John and Audrey Christie were still there. The effect of The Magic Flute on me was overwhelming. I had already heard operas. I had even been to Covent Garden with my father. I cannot recall what I heard there, but I thought it was a stupid medium. But when I saw The Magic Flute I changed my mind. I thought, this is a different matter, there does seem to be a point to all those people up there apparently mucking about on the stage. I think I recognized a sense of ritual, not only in The Magic Flute but also in the Canticum Sacrum.

    I think it was a total experience with The Magic Flute, although perhaps primarily at that time it was musical. I sat there completely riveted. It seemed to have so many levels to which one could respond. It's not really an opera anyway: it's called a Singspiel. It's a pantomime. They are not real characters; I like that. At a later date I realized that the leading characters are archetypes. It was very clear for a child or someone of twelve to follow: you had a good man in Sarastro, you had the evil witch in the Queen of the Night, you had a couple of fools in Papageno and Papagena, and then you had the lovers in Tamino and Pamina, and you had a wicked old bugger in — a name I can never pronounce — Monostatos, who lusts after Pamina.

    At a much later date I discovered that all the symbolism in The Magic Flute was masonic. I was disgusted at the time, because Orthodoxy proscribes anything to do with freemasonry. However, this doesn't bother me any more.

    Anyway, having no interest in opera, I suppose I went because it was an experience. I would never go to Glyndebourne now unless they decided to perform one of my works. But in those days it was such a romantic thing to do and I had such a romantic godmother. We used to have amazing picnics, she used to park the Alvis in a ditch and in the intervals we used to tuck into her unforgettable pâté (she was a wonderful cook). There was something special about the whole experience of going to Glyndbourne.

Only occasionally was my music-making in those early years collaborative. Somewhat later, when I was at Highgate School, we got together a little group and had concerts in my grandfather's studio. Our group included the composer John Rutter, Nicholas Snowman who went on to found the London Sinfonietta and now runs Glyndebourne, and the pianist Francis Steiner. Simon Vaughan was the singer. We put on little concerts. For one of them I wrote, at about the age of fifteen (in 1959), what I consider to be the first of my important pieces. It was the first of what was to become the three Donne Sonnets and I seem to remember a performance of that with me playing the organ and Simon Vaughan singing the vocal part. It was a very severe text for somebody of fifteen to be attracted to:

Spit in my face you Jewes, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoffe, scourge, and crucifie mee,
For I have sinn'd and sinn'd, and onely hee,
Who could do no iniquitie hath dyed.

    I never wanted to read music — I hated the idea. When I went to the local school of music it was something I detested — being taught, having to sight-read, all that aspect of music. Because I had perfect pitch, all I wanted to do was improvise. I never wanted to look at scores, I just wanted to listen. And improvise. And the organ is a very good instrument on which to improvise. Early on, in the Presbyterian church in Hampstead I listened to organists, or my own father, improvising before the service started. So I became an expert improviser, I might say, and I could improvise for hours at a time.

    However, I did finally learn to read music, otherwise I wouldn't know how to write a score at all. But it was definitely the least interesting part of music. Music for me was something that I just did and I did it non-stop, as I still do today.

When I was aged about thirteen or fourteen, I wrote a Duo Concertante (1961) for trombone and piano for the headmaster of Highgate School. I remember he loved it, and played it, and he excused me from all games — football or `fives' or whatever they played there. I was allowed to spend the entire afternoon in Highgate Parish Church improvising on the organ.

    I didn't want to play Bach. By this time I could read music but I didn't really want to play Bach from the score, but rather from my memory of what I had heard. I remember listening and listening to the Sanctus from the Mass in B Minor and I got it absolutely right, because at a later date I checked it with the full score.

    During the time I was at Highgate School it had a good reputation for being a musical school and its choir was second to none. It was Highgate School Choir who provided the boys' voices for the recording of the War Requiem conducted by Britten. The boys' voices were also used for a piece by Luigi Dallapiccola. There was an extraordinary man at the school, Edward Chapman, who could be extremely cruel. I recall him saying to a friend of mine who was trying to compose, `You know, it costs a lot of money to buy manuscript paper ... takes a long time to write it out ... and you can't help wondering whether it's worth it.' He could be savage, absolutely savage.

    I remember also that he thought my powers of extemporization were so good that he sent me up to Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of fourteen to sit for an organ scholarship. Nobody at the age of fourteen could possibly do that. I'd never learnt anything about the laws of western counterpoint. I remember him coming into the school chapel the day before I went and he said, `They'll probably ask you to transpose from a full score', and he put a full score in front of me and he said, `Right, transpose that into C sharp.' Well, of course I couldn't do it — I'd never done it in my life! Then he said, `They'll probably give you a paper on counterpoint. I know I haven't talked too much about it, but do it intuitively.' And I remember him telling me to play scales on the pedals, which he'd never ever gone through with me before. Of course, I was almost crying by the end of it — I thought, this is ridiculous, I won't be able to do anything. He said, `But I think you may win through because of your power of extemporization.'

    Well, I went up and I played for Raymond Leppard who was at Trinity at that time. I played the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B minor and I improvised. They were very impressed by my improvisation. As for the paper on counterpoint, I just filled it in with the notes that I felt sounded best. They actually wrote to Edward Chapman saying that I was extremely talented and ought to come up again in perhaps a couple of years' time.

    My music had a curious mixture of influences at this time: Stravinsky, Gershwin, Ravel, Handel (rather more like the Percy Grainger Handel, Handel in the Strand, it had a kind of extra exuberance). Stravinsky was probably the strongest influence. I wrote pieces for the school orchestra, and Edward Chapman was very impressed with what I wrote. I was also quite a budding pianist. I played Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto, as a duet, with Edward Chapman playing the orchestral part, at the Festival Hall while I was still at Highgate. I played Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 with the school orchestra. I also wrote lots of music for the orchestra. I cannot remember the titles of all the pieces, but it was a great experience for me because I could actually hear my music, and to hear was the most important thing for me.

    There were annual carol services, and towards the end of my time at Highgate School Edward Chapman used to say, `Right, get on the organ stall and play.' As I arrived at the carol service I thought I was going to sing in the choir as normal but he would say, `Come over here. You play.' I said, `I haven't got any music with me,' so he said, `Improvise.' So I improvised. I've grown to hate the organ but in those days I absolutely loved playing it. I remember playing it extremely loudly. A hero of mine was Dr Thalben Ball who used to play Handel organ concertos in what many would now regard as the most outrageously philistine manner — as did Edward Chapman — with all the stops out and not remotely like the sound of a baroque organ. (I remember the first time I heard the word baroque, I must have been much younger. I was in St Albans Abbey and I was intrigued: they were building a new organ and I went up to — I suppose it must have been — the verger and I said, `Is the organ baroque?' And he said, `No, it's in perfectly good order.')

There were a lot of very musical people at Highgate when I was there. I have already mentioned the composer John Rutter, the pianist Francis Steiner and Nicholas Snowman; Howard Shelley, another good pianist, was also there, as was the composer Brian Chapple. So there were a lot of musical people there, under Edward Chapman's terrifying and inspiring tutelage.

    I remember playing Bach's Italian Concerto in the big main hall. Edward Chapman sat there with his hands over his face. When I'd finished playing, he spoke to me about the great mystery of Bach's music, its spirituality. Despite his toughness, I was very lucky to have him, and in a way he was my best teacher, because he was already talking in almost metaphysical terms. He had a very naïve view of what would happen to him when he died: he believed that he would be playing the organ for the angels in heaven. He believed that totally. But he certainly conveyed to me, especially in the slow movement of the Italian Concerto, the mystery of Bach.

    He also took me to the complete cycle of The Ring at Covent Garden, which intrigued me, I think — I can't say more than that. It intrigued, and somehow `bothered' me.

    Credo (1961) was composed while I was still at Highgate. I got a group of professional brass players together — my father, as always, footing the bill. Using the choir from my father's church, St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Hampstead, Credo was given its first performance. Then I wrote a setting of Genesis (1962), the Creation of the World. I had interspersed into the biblical text verses from T. S. Eliot's `The Rock'.

    Even in those days I had considerable cheek, so I wrote to Eliot and invited him to come to this performance. Later, I read in the Hampstead & Highgate Express, `T. S. Eliot will come to Tavener's Oratorio'. In the end he was unable to, he had a cold or something. I even sent him my poetry, the poetry I wrote when I was sixteen or seventeen, and he wrote a very kind letter back saying, `Stick to your music, and as far as your poetry is concerned all I can say at the moment is that it is as good as anything I wrote when I was your age.'

    As to other than musical influences, Stravinsky was such a hero in these early days, I tended to read what I'd seen Stravinsky had read. So it could be anything from T. S. Eliot (because he was a friend of Stravinsky) to Claudel to André Gide, even Ramuz. I tramped all over London to try to get Ramuz. But it was mainly because Stravinsky had read these books that I wanted to. I read his Poetics of Music and found it quite heavy going. I wrote an essay on music which must have been influenced colossally by Stravinsky's text, because the headmaster's report said, `Not only has this boy got a phenomenal gift as a musician but he has a phenomenal intellect on the subject of music.' This, I'm afraid, all came from Poetics of Music, a book, by the way, I now heartily detest, clearly half written by Claudel and half by Valéry and full of formalistic fudge.

    My sense of direction at this time was coming entirely from Stravinsky — including his books of conversations with Robert Craft. These I collected avidly. Everything Stravinsky did, I followed. I remember my mother taking me to Maida Vale Studios — in my mid-teens, I suppose — to hear Perséphone, which I fell in love with because it's such a feminine piece (there's so much of Stravinsky that's not very feminine). After this I wrote a piece in memory of Purcell, not because I liked Purcell particularly, but it sounded extremely like Perséphone. I later met Stravinsky at the Royal Academy of Music. Rufina Ampenoff, who was running Boosey & Hawkes at that time, gave him the score of the Three Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1964). Stravinsky took the score and did a curious thing: he just wrote on it, `I know'. I don't know to this day what on earth he meant.

I got a scholarship to the Royal Academy in 1962. In a way it was a slightly depressing experience, because I'd had this marvellously inspiring teacher in Edward Chapman. I found the teachers at the Academy very clinical. They didn't teach me very much. I was still studying the piano; I studied with an ex-pupil of Arthur Schnabel who was called Guy Johnson. I didn't find him at all inspiring after Edward Chapman. But I was lucky because my grandfather knew Solomon, the pianist, who had by then had a stroke. I had lessons with him. He was totally paralysed and couldn't speak, and I remember going and playing the whole of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto to him; at the end he said, `Wonderful.' His very strict housekeeper was in the room and she said, `Don't take any notice of that. That's the only word Mr Solomon can speak!' Anyway, I don't think anybody inspired me as much as Edward Chapman had during my years at the Academy.

    The most wonderful thing that happened to me at the Academy was that my music was performed there. My opera The Cappemakers (1964) was a setting of one of the York Cycle of Mystery Plays in two parts that dealt with the woman taken in adultery and the raising of Lazarus. This was put on at the Academy. But previously to that the same piece had been put on at the home of Lady Birley, at Charleston Manor in Sussex. She had the most beautiful sixteenth-century tithe barn in which a music festival was held every year. She often used to have distinguished house guests. I must have been twenty and I conducted The Cappemakers myself. It was a semi-staged performance in the tithe barn, and because the distinguished critics Felix Aprahamian and Desmond Shawe-Taylor were there, they reviewed it: `Composer brings beauty to mystery play'. That's all I can remember of what they said about it. I had not been taught how to conduct, I just did it.

I was taught composition by Lennox Berkeley at the Royal College of Music in London. Berkeley was a charming man, I loved him very much. I can't say that he was very important to me musically. I was not interested in studying scores or dissecting them. Neither was he. I don't think he really enjoyed teaching; he was always looking at the piece he was writing at the time. One always got the feeling he'd got his eye on that and was hardly concentrating on what I was doing at all. Maybe my Piano Concerto (1962-3) had some of the clear textures of Berkeley. His lessons were often quite amusing, because he was inordinately vague, aristocratic and very shy as well.

    He used to play through Bach cantatas on occasions when I had no music to show him. He always used to encourage me. One of the most important things that came out of working with him was my exposure to his Roman Catholicism. We talked about religion and he, in his vague, shy, aristocratic way, never really got down to any kind of nitty-gritty. He just told me, 'There's a priest I know in Westminster Cathedral, Father Pemberton. I think you ought to go and see him, you know.' He also wanted me to go and study with Nadia Boulanger.

    I went with my parents to Paris and went on to Fontainebleau, which is where the distinguished teacher Nadia Boulanger conducted her summer course, l went to explore the possibility of studying with her. I was very impressed by her; she was a venerable and quite remarkable old lady. But her approach, analysing Bach chorales, analysing polyphonic music, did not interest me: I was very antipathetic to the whole concept of analysis. I didn't care about those composers of the past; I just wanted to go on writing the music that I heard in my head. Analysis has never done anything for me at all. So I decided there was no point in studying with her. The person I really wanted to study with was the Australian composer David Lumsdaine.

The first, and one of the greatest, experiences of hearing my own music was when Paul Steinitz, who was the chief conductor of the London Bach Society, performed the orchestrated version of the Donne Sonnets. He was a very shy man, rather curt, and he said, `I saw the first page, I knew it was a good piece, I decided to do it.' 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 the Donne Sonnets than in subsequent pieces. It was performed in St Bartholomew the Great along with works by Britten, Nicholas Maw and Anthony Milner. Milner came up to me afterwards and said, `Do you always write such depressing music?'

    The original Donne Sonnet, which I wrote when I was fifteen, was a setting for voice and piano, or voice and organ. Later I added two more sonnets which I orchestrated. The second was `Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadfull'. The third one was `I am a little world made cunningly of Elements and an Angelic spright'. It was after this performance that first I came into contact with David Lumsdaine, and I met him again at a sixtieth birthday concert for Lennox Berkeley, to which he asked all of his pupils.

    David must have been some thirteen years older than me. He had come from Australia, and he had been a pupil of Matyas Seiber. At this time he was having composition lessons from Berkeley, as was Brian Ferneyhough, another modernist. Lennox used to say, `I really don't know what to make of this music at all.' Brian was also a friend of mine and I remember going into his room one day and seeing a huge piece of forty-two-stave manuscript paper, and I said, `Brian, why do you feel the need to fill in every stave?' And he said, `Oh, I don't feel I've done a day's work unless I fill in every stave.'

To come back to The Cappemakers: I'd been given a book of the York Cycle of Mystery Plays. These plays were all created by different medieval guilds and the texts have a tremendous bite and immediacy. This attracted me very much. It had a small scoring: I remember one trumpet, one piano, one trombone, one clarinet — one of everything, almost Stravinskian scoring. The music was quite jaunty and the words have fantastic punch: `Leap forth, let us no longer stand; she has been taken with foul adultery.' The Raising of Lazarus section in The Cappemakers was quite a change for me — I think there I used for the first time the sound of bells. This was really on the advice of David Lumsdaine, as was an aleatoric passage for bells, piano and for the trumpet.

    My work with David had come about after Lennox's pupils had been asked to write something for his sixtieth birthday. It had to be based on what I thought was an awful piece of music, 'I do not like my looking-glass at all', from his opera The Dinner Engagement, a very light-hearted sort of piece. I thought the tune was absolutely appalling. Anyway, David Lumsdaine was at the concert. I was very attracted by the sounds that he made in his variation on the tune and he was obviously very impressed by my piece — I say obviously only because afterwards he came up to me and offered to teach me for nothing. It was then, I suppose, that he opened doors for me. Again, I found a teacher who had something of Edward Chapman. Even though David was a modernist he would have agreed with Schoenberg's remark: `There's still plenty of good music to be written in C major.' I remember him saying that, and I remember him talking about the mystery of music. He opened the doors of modernism to me and he told me I would close 95 per cent of them. He was right; I did. Despite being a modernist, David was none the less able to imbue one with the sense of the mystery and magic of music — even of its sacred quality.

    Benjamin Britten, who was of course a big name at this time, was not a composer I took to in the way that I took to Stravinsky. Britten was never a hero of mine, yet his vocal line attracted me and I think that is evident in Three Sections from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (1963). I think the piano part is extremely spare and possibly owes more to Stravinsky. But the vocal line was influenced by Britten.

    There were no commissions at the time of the first performance of Three Sections. It was sung at a recital given by the eminent soprano Jennifer Vyvyan at the Wigmore Hall. I think it was at this time that the tenor Peter Pears began to take an interest in my music. He came with Lennox Berkeley to my house after they'd been to a rehearsal, and my mother put out afternoon tea on the lawn. I got to know Peter Pears quite well. Britten I met but never knew particularly well.

    In those days Britten admired what I'd written and he wrote a letter to Covent Garden saying `You ought to commission this British composer'. When Peter Pears and Britten heard Three Sections, Pears thought about me writing something for him, some poetry of Cavafy. This was to be prophetic of much later years — Tribute to Cavafy (1999).

I hate progress, I hate development and I hate evolution in most things; but in music particularly. And of course I got quite a bit of all that from David Lumsdaine. He wanted to analyse pieces like Messiaen's Chronochromie. But it did nothing for me; I wasn't interested in how composers worked, or how they got this or that effect. It was what I heard in the `ear' of my musical imagination, so to speak, that guided me, that told me whether I wanted anything to do with this music. If I loved a piece the last thing I wanted to do was dissect it. I remember I was stupefied by Messiaen's Turangalîla-symphonie when I heard it for the first time. I was probably in the company of David Lumsdaine, who adored the piece. After that I listened and listened to it until I could no longer bear its saccharine sound world.

    I have always been drawn more to the archetypal levels of human experience and human types, which is why I think I was drawn to Stravinsky and revolted by Schoenberg. Schoenberg was for me the filthy, rotten `dirt dump' of the twentieth century. I personally could not stand the angst-ridden sound of decay in his music, the vile post-Freudian world. Basically, I do not respond to the so-called `Germanic Tradition', whose by now rotting corpse — the hideous sound world of its fabricated complexity — smothers archetypal experience that I have always sought.

From 1961 to 1975, from the age of sixteen and through my years at the Academy, I was the organist and choir master at St John's Kensington, where I arranged performances of Bach's St Matthew Passion, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time. I was there until my mid-thirties. Certain hymns, such as `Lead kindly light', affected me.

    I remember there was a memorial service in St Paul's Cathedral for Mahatma Gandhi which I attended. Indian classical music was being played up by the high altar, and then, without any break, at the West Door, one suddenly heard the unaccompanied cathedral choir singing `Lead kindly light'. The combination of the two, the Indian music and Victorian English choral music, was magical.

    Something of this experience later bore fruit in my Celtic Requiem of 1969, where in the last section the choir sing in three-part canon `Lead kindly light'. The effect I achieved there was to do with the juxtaposition of two contrasting elements, in this case raucous children's games and the very soft sound of this English hymn.

    I can't say in retrospect that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had really meant much to me at all. But I remember the pastor and his wife, with their dark Lutheran love of Ibsen and Ingmar Bergman. I am grateful to them for imparting this love, and for allowing me to watch them die, one after the other, from cancer. I loved them deeply.

    Through my connection with this church in Kensington I also met an extraordinary girl who worked a lot in South America, Mexico and Peru. One day she came to my house; I cannot think why, but she did. She gave me a Mexican cross, a Celtic cross and a Mexican poncho. I hardly knew her. She was the Roman Catholic daughter of one of the members of the congregation, yet she came out with the astonishing declaration that she had fallen in love with me and that she'd enrolled to be a nun on the same day. This girl had a tremendous effect on me. She `opened me up', `tore me to shreds' you might say. She in a sense started me off on a spiritual quest, which I think before this period had been only embryonically present.

    She introduced me to the extraordinary mystical poetry of St John of the Cross, which of course refers so often to God as a lover. When St John of the Cross talks about his love of God, even though he may do it in the form of a love poem, there is the whole concept of transcendent love — a concept that was completely unknown to me before this time. This introduced me to something which has stayed with me ever since, the idea that there are two levels of reality — this world and the world beyond.

    The pieces I wrote during this period — Celtic Requiem (1969), Coplas (1970), Nomine Jesu (1970) and Ultimos Ritos (1972) — were influenced by many things I had seen in the Roman Catholic Church. The same girl took me to the Maundy Thursday service in Westminster Cathedral. It was the first time I'd ever heard the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, for instance, and I was immensely impressed with it. (I can still listen to it today; indeed, perhaps Victoria is the only Renaissance composer that I can stand. I love his homophony, his lack of ornament.) I remember particularly in this deeply symbolic service the moment when the altar is stripped of the sacrament which is then taken out in procession underneath a canopy. During this procession the Passiontide hymn Pange Lingua is sung in Latin, and then between each plainsong verse a harmonized version is sung by the boys' voices and the men's voices. The congregation followed the procession round to where the sacrament — or Christ himself — was laid to rest in the chapel of rest. This had a deep effect on me. I still think that service in the Roman Catholic Church is one of most desolate and primordially moving.

    About twenty years ago I returned to it to see how it affected me and I remember it brought tears to my eyes just hearing that processional music. The utter desolation. Christ is no longer present on the altar: He had been taken away.

    At this time I had begun to think that liturgy as drama and drama as liturgy were the only means of expression. I don't know whether the works I wrote at that time already expressed this, but certainly by the time that I reached Ultimos Ritos they had.


Returning to the major works of this early period, I was writing Cain and Abel (1965) while I was at the Academy and still studying with David Lumsdaine. It was heavily influenced by the late sacred serial pieces of Stravinsky. It was a setting from the Vulgate in Latin of the story of Cain and Abel. It is framed with Latin and then in the middle comes a melodrama which is taken from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays based on Cain and Abel. Here I used a completely different style. The setting of the Latin section is hieratical whereas the Mystery Play music is melodramatic. There's a certain wildness in it — certainly in the writing for Cain himself. At the point of Cain's killing Abel, for instance, the piece becomes aleatoric: the notes are given to the brass and they build up into a mighty fanfare.

    Cain and Abel was important in so far as I think some of the lyricism of the Donne Sonnets appears, particularly in the last section. I remember that the critic and composer Anthony Payne wrote that Cain and Abel was the most impressive work he had heard since Maxwell Davies's second Taverner Fantasia. I knew the Maxwell Davies piece and at the time I regarded it as impressive. I don't know whether I considered Payne's comment as a compliment or not.

    Next came the Chamber Concerto (1965), which lasts about twenty-five minutes and supports a fairly large orchestra, although I use the word `Chamber'. It's the only abstract piece of music that I've ever written and I regard it as a total cul-de-sac, a kind of idolatry of notes for notes' sake. There is no meaning behind any of the notes. It was a purely technical exercise, rather like completing a jigsaw or filling in a crossword. I can remember it: if you asked me to go to the piano now and play it, I could, or parts of it at any rate, and little pleasure would it give me. It was much influenced by David Lumsdaine. But its abstraction, by which I mean the self-reference of its musical procedures, is something I would never return to.