John Tavener : Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis
When I was asked by Christoph Maria Moosmann to write a “universalist” setting of the Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it seemed to be a commission sent from heaven. My life and work have been shaped by the Orthodox Church, by Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu doctrine of non-duality) as revealed to me in a vision of Frithjof Schuon, and a life-long veneration and love of Mary the Mother of God, so the music seemed to explode onto the page. The commission also gave me the opportunity to set the entire mass, including all parts for the celebrant, using choir, soloists and instruments. I was ever-aware that it should be music for a sacred rite, with all the solemnity and dignity that this implies. I have used a number of languages – Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, American Indian, German and Italian – to express something of the Divine Effulgence of the Feminine that the Mother of God reveals to us. She aids as “Mother” and attracts as “Virgin”: her aid descends from Heaven, whereas her attraction raises us towards Heaven. As Mother of Christ, she has a double significance: her own nature and her Child. The first is inexhaustible and perpetual; the second, unique and historical.
Many Christians, Hindus, American Indians and Muslims believe that we live in “the time of Mary”, hence her numerous miraculous apparitions before Christians and non-Christians alike, proclaiming her as Mother of the Universe. It is indeed timely to contemplate the true meaning of her Immaculate Conception, which confers on Mary the Feminine aspect of the logos. It also connects her with the Hindu goddesses whom I invoke while celebrating her as “Mother of the Universe”, just before the Credo which establishes the One and Only True God. There is nothing in the Hindu doctrine of non-duality that is incompatible with our complete and full faith in the Christian Revelation. As Dom Henri le Saux puts it: “The Advaita is not beyond the Church of Christianity, it is right in the centre of it”.
The old Latin plainsong mass is probably the most sublime musical and liturgical setting that exists. In fact, the great French writer Réné Guenon has said that after Plainsong, western music goes in a downhill direction from which it has not recovered. I understand fully what he means, but I am also aware of “La crise du monde moderne”, which is in part fuelled by the fact that we live at a time when Christianity can no longer remain exclusive. Therefore there has never been a greater need for a setting of the mass that is not only timeless, but also includes divine echoes of other great traditions, thus placing Christianity in a universal context. Since the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a relatively recent dogma of the Catholic Church, it seemed to me an ideal Feast for such a universalist approach. I am deeply conscious of the present Pope’s concern for a creative approach to liturgy and music, and thus I humbly dedicate this work to him, as well as to the beloved memory of Sheikh Abu Bakr, a dear Sufi friend who loved the Blessed Virgin more deeply than I can say.
Musical and Metaphysical Note
The entire mass is sung, there are no spoken parts, and the musical structure mirrors the liturgical structure. The work is scored for two choirs (or one choir divided into two parts), brass, strings, organ, percussion and a separate string quartet, taken from the string orchestra and placed with a bandir drum and a “pure-toned” soprano in a high gallery at the West End of the church. The singers of the Old Testament readings and the Epistle should be taken from the choir. So also should the four basses who sound from the four corners of the building in “cross” formation. They intone the sacred syllable “OM” at the beginning and the end of the Mass (when they may be pre-recorded), and also invoke the Hindu goddesses before the Credo.
The music has a mosaic-like structure, with different harmonies and melodic ideas symbolising different metaphysical concepts. For instance, the music which invokes the Eternal Feminine in the forms of the Mother of God, Hindu goddesses, and Pté San Win of the American Indians, is all taken from different parts of the Mass, thus connecting these invocations with all the different musical and liturgical aspects of the Mass. The names of IESU and MARIA are invoked throughout the Mass. This onomastic and primordial prayer again produces a supplementary place of convergence of the East with the West, for to invoke IESU MARIA is to constantly invoke and remember God. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the Aramaic word Maranatha is also added to the sacred names – “Come Lord”. As the Mass progresses, there are commentaries from the solo soprano and string quartet, sometimes in the form of ecstatic Marian verses by Schuon, and at other times reflective “divine echoes” in Sanskrit or Arabic. The musical motifs are quoted and requoted throughout the singing of the mass in different forms and different guises, thus helping to make the liturgy and metaphysics clearer. For instance, after the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the rite of Communion, the soprano sings Dante-Alligieri’s words “Tutti I miei pensier parlan d’amore” (All my thoughts speak of love”) – both terrestrial and celestial at this supreme moment before the great banquet of Love, and of union with God.
The brass choir (four trumpets and four trombones) represents “Royalty”, as the strings represent “Femininity”. One could say that the brass symbolise Christ, as the strings symbolise Mary, for if Christ is The Way, the Truth and The Life, the Blessed Virgin, who is made of the same substance, holds graces which facilitate access to these mysteries. The Pow-wow drum of the American Indians symbolises primordiality, and sounds at the most elemental moments of the Mass. The tam-tam and Tibetan temple bowls open Christianity to all the Eastern traditions, which confirm its Absolute authenticity, as well as making it Universal. The opening for muted strings alone at the beginning of The Celebration of the Universal Feminine becomes the Meditation on The Immaculate Conception at the end of Communion, but this time played at half speed by the muted string quartet. This confirms, as it were, the meaning of The Immaculate Conception, whether one understands this exoterically and literally, or esoterically and mystically. Either way, it is a mystery; which the music implies, as does the Gospel when it says of the Virgin that she is “full of grace”, and that “the Lord is with thee”, and that “henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”.
Christ inherited from the Virgin his entire human nature, from both the physical and the psychic point of view. Hence the poetic and mystical line of Schuon: “Verily thine Immaculate body is the Veil of the Ever-Forgiving.” Now a person with such prerogatives is indeed Mother of God, expressed theologically by the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Musically I show this by piercing the Magnificat six times with a quote from my earlier work The Protecting Veil (of the Mother of God), for solo cello and orchestra.
This Mass is my longest meditation on the Blessed Virgin so far, and I humbly pray that it will “bear fruit” and be used by the church for which it was written.
…The Marian Mass premièred during the “Religio Musica Nova” festival, may well be considered a confessional peak in Tavener’s composition -- and an epoch work. The complete title of the mass is "Sollemnitas in conceptione immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis", in English: Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. It is dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI and the memory of Sufi master Sheikh Abu Bakr.
The form of the mass, the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist during which the suffering and resurrection of Christ is remembered, is both ancient and immortal. First recorded by Neumen in the 9th century, it had already passed through diverse transformations. Not even the components considered central today (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei) have remained sacrosanct throughout the centuries.
Composers have eliminated and inserted elements at random. Tavener’s “Sollemnitas” is, however, unusual for its radicalness. It unites the complete text of the Marian liturgy with elements from Hindu and Native American religion, with Arabic citations, Shuon poems and a line from Dante. The music also shows Byzantine influence. Pentatonic and Gregorian plainsong are played alongside savage orchestra chords à la Messiaen; oriental embellishments and Byzantine voice leading alongside choral-like passages reminiscent of Bach; swing is not ignored either. Little handbells and Tibetan temple cymbals make grand appearances, and in the beginning as well as at the end basses in the Zurich Großmünster sing out the syllable “OM” from all four directions –that very indiscriminate, antiquated babbling of Brahmins that Hegel mocks in his “Logic”. Musically there are grand scenes, great moments, but also tiring, ruminant passages and endless repetitions.
Tavener’s approach through the figure of Mary is legitimized. In almost all religions Mary has a double, a mother of god and great innocent. In his mass, she is invoked under 60 names from Anaghâ to Viúva jananî . Thus Tavener’s “Sollmenitas” is, along with much else, the first mass for the matriarchy, a bold (if still shaped by guiding Christian ideas) answer to the Catholic patriarchy.
Compared with "The Veil of the Temple", his new Marian Mass possesses one of the most beautiful of all Christian virtues: humility.
Volker Tarnow, Die Welt, 15/12/2007
… This work that was premièred on Saturday as the climax of the Religio Musica Nova festival, has interreligious elements and is dedicated to Pope Benedict XVI and Sufi master Sheikh Abu Bakr.
Along with the text of the Latin mass (including reading, gospel (Evangelium) and prayers) are Schuon poems, Hindu words, Islamic verses and a line from Dante. The music is correspondingly heterogenous. It is reminiscent of Gregorian plainsong and Russian vespers, sounds like Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt or even Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” (“Attuning”); it places a ritual “OM” as a frame around the work and accompanies the “Our Father” with drum rhythms, thereby overcoming all contradictions.
Because this mass is meant to shine. All artifices become obsolete. Harmonious depths, counterpoint techniques, refined touch, profound interpretation of text – all that is secondary; even the dynamics seem schematic. Tavener paints an icon, stated very simply, often simplistic in the music.
Certainly in itself, from its utmost concern, this mass is coherent. It is conclusively arranged in a great architecture stretching over almost two hours. Within the space of the church it gains appeal. This shows Tavener’s skill. The highly sensuous Schuon texts are written for the solo soprano (Sophie Bevan). The choral movement is created in a way that rises to a thrilling fortissimo. The Berlin Radio Choir made a brilliant contribution. The choral director Simon Halsey arranged the work in an unbroken arc and brought out the strong colours – along with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, the Amar Quartet and the Festival Director Christoph Maria Moosmann on the organ. …
Thomas Meyer, Zürcher Tages-Anzeiger, 10/12/2007