Holy Minimalism

John Tavener: The Lamb

This is a very eerie sounding carol.  The simple opening phrase in G major is sung in unison; this is then repeated but now with a new melody sung at the same time creating a chilling augmented Eb triad, and with a brief dissonance just before the two parts come to rest together on G.  The use of unison and octave singing fits well with the simple words of the carol, and I think it is a beautifully atmospheric piece.

Arvo Part: Spiegel im Spiegel

I listened to the original version of this well known piece, composed for violin and piano. It is very simply constructed; the piano playing slow broken triads and the violin slow scale passages.  The word ‘spiegel’ means ‘mirror’, which could be a reference to the violin part’s alternating rising and falling scales throughout the piece.  Although it is in F major, the emotion it conveys to me is one of sorrow.  It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly why – I think partly it is just the absolute stillness of the slow melody and the sparseness of the piano accompaniment.  I think the focus of the tonic triad in second inversion also contributes to the effect: placing the dominant note at the root of the chord means it never sounds completely resolved.

Gorecki: Symphony no. 3

This piece is also known as the ‘Symphony of sorrowful songs’, and it is easy to see why. It starts with a slow, melancholy melody in E minor played by the double basses.  A second double bass line is then added (in canon form), creating initially quite a muddy sound; this is followed by two cello entries, two viola entries and finally two violin entries. The texture is very similar throughout this section of the symphony and there are no sudden changes – it’s the sort of music that you can let simply wash over you.  Later on the movement features a soprano voice; combined with the strings, slow progressions and modal harmonies it creates a pure, almost religious sound, and the climax is spine tingling.

I was surprised to hear the second movement (again featuring a soprano voice and strings) was already very familiar to me – I have often heard it played on the radio.  After reading a bit about it I learnt that a recording of this symphony was released in 1992 to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.  The music clearly portrays sorrow even without any associations however.  The movement is marked ‘tranquillissimo’ and is very still throughout, the last (minor) chord held by the strings for over a minute. The orchestration of solo voice and strings reminds me of Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man’, which was written to commemorate victims of war.

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