• John Tavener
  • Supernatural Songs (2003)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Sounds New

  • pow-wow drum.Hindu temple gong/str(
  • Mezzo soprano [=baritone]
  • 30 min
  • W.B. Yeats
  • English

Programme Note

Yeats has been called ‘the most learned of Poets.’ He was learned in the profoundest sense, in the religious sense. Deeply influenced by Hinduism all his life, his late poems are steeped in the Upanishad, and in those imaginary people, created out of the deepest instinct of man to be his measure and his norm. When I listened they seemed always to speak of one thing only: they, their love, every incident of their lives were shaped in the supernatural.’ Unlike T.S. Elliot, who was to identify himself with the European religion, Christianity, W.B. Yeats identified himself with that ‘Oriental’ philosophy the Vedantic tradition, that to the Unity of Being, which the Upanishad have named Self. The supernatural Songs move from a line in Latin about Divine Love, through human love, through Greek myth, into a kind of Hindu ecstasy of being. It then leads into the final two songs, which concern themselves with death, again seen through that fountainhead of spiritual knowledge that it is the heart of Vedic metaphysics. Yeats seemed to scan the entire horizon of human experience of the mystery within whose compel ‘we live and move, and have our being.’ He is for me the supreme artist of the twentieth century.

Supernatural Songs was written for mezzo-soprano, strings, pow-wow Drum, and Hindu Temple Gong. The use of these ‘exotic’ instruments helps to colour the vast horizon of the poetry of this universal poet. The pow-wow drum carries with its vibrations and sound an awesome mystical, and primordial world of which Yeats was a consummate master. The Hindu Temple Gong, is used for its sound but also because of the Unpanishad nature of the late poems of Yeats, and both the primordial Drum and Gong are used because of my own love of Hinduism and the primal metaphysics of the Red Indians.

There is, I hope a quality of both ecstasy, and what Yeats termed his ‘tragic gaiety’ in the music. Where there is love in the music, it is always accompanied by an awesome manifestation, never more so than in the very strange ‘A Nativity’ where Yeats ponders ‘Why is the woman terror struck’ and ‘is there money in that look?’ The reference to the Anti-Christ is suddenly prevalent, as is Nirvana and re-union with ‘Brahman’ in the last songs.

Supernatural Songs represent for me in miniature, a change of metaphysical direction which occurred during the final part of ‘The Veil of Temple’. Not so much as a move away from Christianity, as a realisation the same essential Truths lies hidden beneath the forms of all great traditions. This is an attitude that I share with Yeats, and he is the artist to whom I feel closest in this bewildering age, which in Hindu terms, forms the latter part of that dark age, the Kali Yuga.