Spiritual Minimalism's Grand Old Men
The most successful and well-known composers on our coming concert, aside from Pärt himself, are Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) and John Tavener (1944-2013). They, along with Pärt, are most often referred to as the “spiritual minimalists” whose work has attracted large audiences and radically altered the course of choral music composition. They are strikingly different from one another, with distinctive voices, and do not regard themselves as any sort of unit. What they have in common is that they compose from positions deeply rooted in personal religious faith, finding inspiration in sacred, liturgical texts; and they have all moved from somewhat complex, academic compositional practices in their earlier years, toward simpler, more straightforward and emotionally evocative styles as they have matured.
Górecki was a leading figure in the Polish avant garde during the post-Stalin years, composing serial works during the 1950s and 1960s which were characterized by dissonant modernism, influenced by other modernist composers such as Luigi Nono, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By the mid-1970s, however, he had shifted toward a less complex sound, one characterized by large, slow gestures and the repetition of small motifs, exemplified by the Amen (1975) which Chorale will sing. He achieved sudden, worldwide fame in 1992, when his Third Symphony, subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, commemorating the memory of those who died during the Holocaust, became a worldwide commercial and critical success, selling more than a million recordings.
Like other composers on this program, Górecki was politically active, and in constant conflict with the Polish Communist authorities, whom he described as “little dogs always yapping.” As a professor of musicianship, composition, and orchestration at the Academy of Music in Katowice, he had a reputation for bluntness and ruthlessness, telling his students, “If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write…It might be better to spend time with a girl or with a beer.” A devout Roman Catholic, he resigned from his teaching position in 1979 to protest the government's refusal to allow Pope John Paul II to visit Katowice; when the pope finally visited Poland, in 1987, Górecki composed his motet Totu tuus in honor of the visit.
British composer John Tavener enjoyed a life characterized by far less external conflict and stress than the composers who matured and worked in Soviet bloc countries. His family was comfortably affluent, he attended good schools, and experienced early recognition and success for his compositional efforts. But, like Pärt and Górecki, he experienced a radical change in his fundamental compositional ideas, from his earlier works in a style reminiscent of Messiaen and Stravinsky, toward a sparser, more diatonic, contemplative style, characterized by textural transparency-- described by composer Johan Rutter as being able to "bring an audience to a deep silence.”
Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977; thereafter, Orthodox theology and liturgical traditions became a major influence on his work. He was particularly drawn to its mysticism, studying and setting to music the writings of the Orthodox church fathers. In later years, he explored a number of other religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam. In an interview with The New York Times, Tavener said: "I reached a point where everything I wrote was terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of the Orthodox Church, and I felt the need, in my music at least, to become more universalist: to take in other colors, other languages." Chorale will sing Song for Athene (1993), which sets a text by Mother Tekla, a Russian Orthodox abbess who was Tavener's long-time spiritual adviser. Song for Athene brought Tavener international exposure and fame when it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.