• John Tavener
  • Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006)
    (Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 4tpt.3tbn.btbn/timp/2perc(pow-wow drum, tibetan temple bowls,hand bells)/org/str(
  • SATB double choir, T.2Bar.4B soli
  • Soprano, String Quartet, Percussion (bandir drum)
  • 1 hr 40 min

Programme Note

When I was asked by Christoph Maria Moosmann to write a “universalist” setting of the Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it seemed to be a commission sent from heaven. My life and work have been shaped by the Orthodox Church, by Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu doctrine of non-duality) as revealed to me in a vision of Frithjof Schuon, and a life-long veneration and love of Mary the Mother of God, so the music seemed to explode onto the page. The commission also gave me the opportunity to set the entire mass, including all parts for the celebrant, using choir, soloists and instruments. I was ever-aware that it should be music for a sacred rite, with all the solemnity and dignity that this implies. I have used a number of languages – Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, American Indian, German and Italian – to express something of the Divine Effulgence of the Feminine that the Mother of God reveals to us. She aids as “Mother” and attracts as “Virgin”: her aid descends from Heaven, whereas her attraction raises us towards Heaven. As Mother of Christ, she has a double significance: her own nature and her Child. The first is inexhaustible and perpetual; the second, unique and historical.

Many Christians, Hindus, American Indians and Muslims believe that we live in “the time of Mary”, hence her numerous miraculous apparitions before Christians and non-Christians alike, proclaiming her as Mother of the Universe. It is indeed timely to contemplate the true meaning of her Immaculate Conception, which confers on Mary the Feminine aspect of the logos. It also connects her with the Hindu goddesses whom I invoke while celebrating her as “Mother of the Universe”, just before the Credo which establishes the One and Only True God. There is nothing in the Hindu doctrine of non-duality that is incompatible with our complete and full faith in the Christian Revelation. As Dom Henri le Saux puts it: “The Advaita is not beyond the Church of Christianity, it is right in the centre of it”.

The old Latin plainsong mass is probably the most sublime musical and liturgical setting that exists. In fact, the great French writer Réné Guenon has said that after Plainsong, western music goes in a downhill direction from which it has not recovered. I understand fully what he means, but I am also aware of “La crise du monde moderne”, which is in part fuelled by the fact that we live at a time when Christianity can no longer remain exclusive. Therefore there has never been a greater need for a setting of the mass that is not only timeless, but also includes divine echoes of other great traditions, thus placing Christianity in a universal context. Since the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a relatively recent dogma of the Catholic Church, it seemed to me an ideal Feast for such a universalist approach. I am deeply conscious of the present Pope’s concern for a creative approach to liturgy and music, and thus I humbly dedicate this work to him, as well as to the beloved memory of Sheikh Abu Bakr, a dear Sufi friend who loved the Blessed Virgin more deeply than I can say.

The entire mass is sung, there are no spoken parts, and the musical structure mirrors the liturgical structure. The work is scored for two choirs (or one choir divided into two parts), brass, strings, organ, percussion and a separate string quartet, taken from the string orchestra and placed with a bandir drum and a “pure-toned” soprano in a high gallery at the West End of the church. The singers of the Old Testament readings and the Epistle should be taken from the choir. So also should the four basses who sound from the four corners of the building in “cross” formation. They intone the sacred syllable “OM” at the beginning and the end of the Mass (when they may be pre-recorded), and also invoke the Hindu goddesses before the Credo.

The music has a mosaic-like structure, with different harmonies and melodic ideas symbolising different metaphysical concepts. For instance, the music which invokes the Eternal Feminine in the forms of the Mother of God, Hindu goddesses, and Pté San Win of the American Indians, is all taken from different parts of the Mass, thus connecting these invocations with all the different musical and liturgical aspects of the Mass. The names of IESU and MARIA are invoked throughout the Mass. This onomastic and primordial prayer again produces a supplementary place of convergence of the East with the West, for to invoke IESU MARIA is to constantly invoke and remember God. During the Eucharistic Prayer, the Aramaic word Maranatha is also added to the sacred names – “Come Lord”. As the Mass progresses, there are commentaries from the solo soprano and string quartet, sometimes in the form of ecstatic Marian verses by Schuon, and at other times reflective “divine echoes” in Sanskrit or Arabic. The musical motifs are quoted and requoted throughout the singing of the mass in different forms and different guises, thus helping to make the liturgy and metaphysics clearer. For instance, after the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the rite of Communion, the soprano sings Dante-Alligieri’s words “Tutti I miei pensier parlan d’amore” (All my thoughts speak of love”) – both terrestrial and celestial at this supreme moment before the great banquet of Love, and of union with God.

The brass choir (four trumpets and four trombones) represents “Royalty”, as the strings represent “Femininity”. One could say that the brass symbolise Christ, as the strings symbolise Mary, for if Christ is The Way, the Truth and The Life, the Blessed Virgin, who is made of the same substance, holds graces which facilitate access to these mysteries. The Pow-wow drum of the American Indians symbolises primordiality, and sounds at the most elemental moments of the Mass. The tam-tam and Tibetan temple bowls open Christianity to all the Eastern traditions, which confirm its Absolute authenticity, as well as making it Universal. The opening for muted strings alone at the beginning of The Celebration of the Universal Feminine becomes the Meditation on The Immaculate Conception at the end of Communion, but this time played at half speed by the muted string quartet. This confirms, as it were, the meaning of The Immaculate Conception, whether one understands this exoterically and literally, or esoterically and mystically. Either way, it is a mystery; which the music implies, as does the Gospel when it says of the Virgin that she is “full of grace”, and that “the Lord is with thee”, and that “henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”.
Christ inherited from the Virgin his entire human nature, from both the physical and the psychic point of view. Hence the poetic and mystical line of Schuon: “Verily thine Immaculate body is the Veil of the Ever-Forgiving.” Now a person with such prerogatives is indeed Mother of God, expressed theologically by the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Musically I show this by piercing the Magnificat six times with a quote from my earlier work The Protecting Veil (of the Mother of God), for solo cello and orchestra.
This Mass is my longest meditation on the Blessed Virgin so far, and I humbly pray that it will “bear fruit” and be used by the church for which it was written.