• John Tavener
  • Schuon Lieder (2003)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble, Cheltenham Festival and Ravinia Festival

  • String quartet, piano, four temple bowls
  • Soprano
  • 1 hr

Programme Note

Schuon Lieder are settings of nineteen poems taken from more than three thousand written by Frithjof Schuon, most of them dating from the last four years of his life. Many are mystical love songs of an almost palpable femininity, and they represent a distillation of Schuon’s magisterial and perennialist doctrine.

My songs are scored for soprano voice, string quartet, piano and 4 Tibetan temple bowls. Each one is based on a series of 25 notes: these are, in themselves, musical mirrors of Divine Love. Like the poems, the songs are essences of a Sufi and child-like character. Most are ecstatic and spontaneous reactions to the German poetry, and each is separated from the preceding song by one or more austere canons for string quartet, based on material from preceding songs. The rigorous rhythmic permutations of the Tibetan temple bowls lend a hieratic and ritualistic aspect to the often sacred nature of the lieder.

For me, Song XII forms the centrepiece, and sums up the inner meaning of the whole work, for it sets a poem written by the young Sufi Sheikh after an unhappy love affair which drew him ever closer to God. As Schuon writes: 'It is not so much the earthly or the human as the quest of the soul for eternal Beauty – that play of longing and hope and fidelity and liberation. For this is the doctrine, indeed the vision of God, that ultimately results from all profound love.' The work ends with an instrumental Postlude referring back to the first song.

Schuon Lieder is dedicated to Catherine Schuon, in gratitude for her friendship; and also as widow of Frithjof Schuon, in whose mystical presence I live.

John Tavener



Note on Frithjof Schuon

Frithjof Schuon has been described as one of the greatest metaphysicians that have ever lived. He was a Sufi, and along with René Guénon, he expounded the Religio Perennis, a doctrine that teaches that beneath the outward forms of all religions, there is the same essential Truth. He wrote many metaphysical books, which won the praise of such diverse figures as T.S. Eliot and William Stodhart, who called him 'the very cosmic Intellect itself'.

Schuon was also a gifted painter and poet. Although his prose writings were of a formidable intellectual stature, he believed that a child-like nature was essential for any path to God, and this child-like nature finds expression in his poetry, written in German at the end of his long life.

His disciples, who were from diverse faiths and came to him from all over the world, knew him as Sheikh Isa. He was born in Basle, Switzerland, later moving to the U.S.A., where he was adopted by both the Crow and Sioux Indian tribes.

J.T.

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