Sound and vision: John Tavener's Flood of Beauty

Lasting 100 minutes and requiring an orchestra, dozens of singers, cello and vocal soloists, the piece assaults the senses, deliberately seeking to encompass the listener within the scope of its sound.

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Tavener: Flood of Beauty
Barbican Centre, London EC2

When we enter a particularly impressive building, such as a cathedral, instinct tells us to stand still and take it in. Revolving on the spot, we grope towards an understanding of the overarching scheme governing all the vaulting arches, both comforted and awed by the sheer scale of human endeavour that contains us.

With Flood of Beauty, John Tavener created a piece of music that evokes this very feeling. Lasting 100 minutes and requiring an orchestra, dozens of singers, cello and vocal soloists and a small ensemble of traditional Indian instruments, it assaults the senses, deliberately seeking to encompass the listener within the scope of its sound.

Although presented by the Britten Sinfonia on 28 September as part of a celebration of Tavener’s work, Flood of Beauty was composed between 2006 and 2007, without a commission or an intended performance – it was just something that he had to write down. Since the composer’s death in Nov­ember 2013, we have had several posthumous Tavener premieres, perhaps the most notable being Requiem Fragments, performed by the Tallis Scholars at the Proms in August to mark the centenary of the
precise moment when Britain entered the First World War.

That piece shows Tavener at his most soulful and pensive. It subverts the traditional western requiem structure by leaving out some of the usual elements and replacing them with Hindu acclamations. It builds towards a 17-part polyphonic triumph with a soprano solo soaring over the top – yet its magnificence is muted, as befits the sombre nature of the moment it commemorates.

Flood of Beauty is on a different scale altogether, though it is also influenced by Hinduism. The piece is a giant palindrome, beginning and ending with a repeating phrase on the sitar. Through five cycles, the densely packed vocal and orchestral harmonies expand and contract. Each one ends with a cello solo, played here by Natalie Clein, full of yearning intervals and luxurious melodies and accompanied by gentle bongs and tinkles from the Britten Sinfonia’s percussionists. The baritone Marcus Farnsworth and the soprano Allison Bell, who sang in unison for much of the time, weaved a melody above the swelling orchestral and choral sounds (although Farnsworth sometimes struggled to be heard at the loudest points). Bell, though, was superb, floating her lines far above the cacophony.

Tavener’s score instructs that the different groups of musicians should be placed “as far apart as possible, surrounding the audience so that the music whirls around the building”. Although the limitations of the Barbican’s hall didn’t quite permit them to gather at the compass points as Tavener had suggested – nor did it have a “dome” or “centre” – the arrangement of brass, vocalists and strings in the balcony did produce a suitably immersive, if occasionally chaotic, experience. (If ever a piece demanded a performance in the Royal Albert Hall, this is it.)

The text for Flood of Beauty comes from a Sanskrit poem called the Saundarya Lahari. Its 100 stanzas form an ode to Devi, the female aspect of universal divinity. The words are sometimes on the fruity side, as revealed by the translation projected on to the wall of the hall – the poem really does praise every aspect of the goddess, including her toenails, which are likened to “crescent moons”, while her breasts are compared to “elephant ears”.

Much of Tavener’s work is preoccupied with religion and in particular with the idea of universalism – the spiritual intersection between all faiths. After his conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 1977, his most notable work in this area was The Veil of the Temple, first performed in 2003. It is a seven-hour, dawn-to-dusk vigil that draws on Gregorian chant, St John’s gospel, the rhythms of Hindu devotions and the story of the Knights Templar to produce a sprawling, complex piece of music.

In an interview at the time of its premiere, Tavener said that he saw his composing as a search for “the uncreated music of God”. Flood of Beauty, for all that it is noisy and strange to the ear, is undoubtedly part of that greater project. Tavener worked with such audacity and at such scale, creating a musical edifice that, above all, demands respect. As these final premieres take place, it feels as though we have lost more than just a composer. This is the work of a visionary we won’t be hearing from again.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World