NOTEworthy: April 12

This Week’s Music: April 12

Song of Athene

John Tavener

John Tavener has a very special place in my heart as a composer. His career took place mostly in the latter half of the 20th Century, and, personally, I think his pieces strike a perfect balance of aesthetic beauty and theoretical interest. They are beautiful on the page due to the musical techniques used, and beautiful to listen to as well. One of his most popular pieces, The Lamb, features a beautiful little melody which he harmonizes by mirroring the melody strictly – if the original melody goes up a whole step, the harmonization goes down a whole step, etc. It creates an almost eerie duet that somehow still fits into the tone-world of a little lamb.

In Song of Athene, he plays a different game with the music on the page. For the entire six minute piece, the baritones sing a drone (the same note held for a long time). Over this drone, a solo voice sings the word “Alleluia, Alleluia” seven times with alternating texts from Shakespeare and the Orthodox Funeral Rite sung in between by the choir. Each time the two Alleluias are resung, he switches only one note in the motive, and in so doing makes these Alleluias either hopeful (major key) or mournful (minor key).

This piece stuck out to me this week for a few reasons: The first reason was those hopeful and mournful Alleluias. As I listened through “Song of Athene” this week, I found I could lean into both types of Alleluias. I, like so many of us, was mourning a country standing still, friends and family I can’t see, the loss of life, and the loss of normalcy. Yet there were so many things I could be thankful and hopeful for when I took the time to look. There is a war going on in the hospitals of our nation, but my daily life is only inconvenienced.

The second reason this piece seemed important was that it allowed me to sit in that confused emotional space I found myself in. Sometimes a song is a place, rather than a journey, and this is a place of stillness. Another funny dichotomy of our current state is that physically, there is much more stillness than we want! Our minds, however, have picked up the slack… “Song for Athene” is a slow-burn, but when the fuse finally reaches the end of the cord, we are rewarded with such deep, complex, meaningful joy: “Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.”

A final reason this piece spoke to me is the game Tavener plays with the piece musically. Tavener, with the smallest amount of musical material, made this piece diverse and interesting by flipping one note back and forth. I think we can do the same with our daily lives. As life drones on in the monotony of isolation and sameness, I invite you to find the games, embrace small spiritual shifts in perspective, and see what small changes can do for you.

“One who is faithful in very little is faithful in very much.”
Luke 16:10a