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Proms 2014: Commemorating the outbreak of WWI with John Tavener and the Tallis Scholars

100 years after British foreign secretary Edward Grey said that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”, a programme of John Tavener’s music provided the perfect soundtrack for quiet remembrance.

Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars and members of the Heath Quartet at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars and members of the Heath
Quartet at the Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The words of foreign secretary Edward Grey, spoken as Britain’s ultimatum to Germany expired at midnight Berlin time on 4 August 1914, have echoed down the decades. Amid all the wreath-laying and speech-making we’ve had to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak, just hearing this phrase and seeing a candle blown out can have great power to evoke the events we are commemorating.  

As I’ve written already, the Proms has made some very interesting and unusual choices when it comes to remembering the First World War in musical terms. Chief among these was the programming of last night’s Late Night Prom, intended to span the moment a hundred years ago when Grey’s words were first spoken. Rather than early twentieth century pomp, we got John Tavener at his most soulful and pensive. Arguably, no composer ever wrote better music for solemn reflection – the kind of silence that his work is capable of producing is like no other. He told Bloomberg in 2007 that:

The most important thing about music is not what one writes down... It is what is left out. One should move towards silence.”  

This trajectory is easy to sense in Ikon of Light, the work that kicked off the programme last night. It was composed in 1984 for the Tallis Scholars, and 30 years later, Peter Phillips’ choir is still bringing a beautiful sort of lustre to the piece. The string trio enters each time with a single note that builds up to a sustained chord, but always returns to unison, focusing your mind on that one point, the place where music ends and silence begins. The calm, restrained majesty of it does funny things to your sense of time – the piece takes about 40 minutes, but when you surface from it, you feel as though hours has passed and yet you have barely shifted in your seat.

Prommers light candles to commemorate the start of WWI. Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Prommers light candles to commemorate the start of WWI.
Photo: Chris Christodoulou

Shortly before he died, Tavener wrote a new piece for the Tallis Scholars, Requiem Fragments, which received its world premiere last night. Hearing it alongside Ikon of Light, the two separated by 30 years, it was easy to hear how he developed as a composer over the course of his life. The first half of the piece has some stunning harmonies, and pulls the traditional western requiem structure around (Tavener leaves parts out, and adds Hindu acclamations instead). The addition of trombones to the strings provided by the Heath Quartet was slightly surprising, although their marked, detached chords beneath the vocal lines provided an interesting tonal contrast.

Peter Phillips explained to the audience that he first met the composer 35 years ago when Tavener contacted him wanting to find out more about the work of his namesake, the Tudor composer John Taverner. The latter’s influence lingers in the second half of Requiem Fragments, a 17-part polyphonic triumph with a soprano solo soaring over the top. Carolyn Sampson provided the latter last night, perched up by the Royal Albert Hall organ, an ethereal presence in the dark.

Afterwards, the lights went out, and prommers standing in the central arena of the hall lit their candles. The actor Samuel West read “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen, and the Tallis Scholars sang one of Tavener’s most famous short pieces, his setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb”. Then the candles were blown out, and we sat in the dark to think ourselves back in time.

Now read: John Tavener and the search for the music of God

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge