Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

  • 0010/01(pictpt)10/7perc.timp/aeolian
  • children’s choir & SATB
  • soprano, contralto, bass
  • 23 min
  • Blathmac/Vaughan/Newman
  • English, Latin

Programme Note

In 1968, the London Sinfonietta asked me to write a work for them. I wanted to write a requiem but could not forecast what form it might take - or how long it might be.

I first thought of calling my new work CELTIC REQUIEM because the idea of it came to me while spending some time in Ireland, and I wanted to set early Irish poetry. But on completion I discovered that it had become a theatre piece for children, with a background of Irish and Latin words, and the original title seemed less meaningful. However, I have stuck to this title, because I like it and I owe a debt to Ireland for the genesis of the spirit of the music.

The work is scored for three instrumental groups, including Irish bagpipes, A flat clarinet, bass trombone, piccolo trumpet, grand organ, piano, strings, percussion, three choirs, soloists and rather young children's voices. The music is a gigantic decoration of the chord of E flat major. Three different canti and three different rhythmic groups embellish this chord, and the words of the mass are always allotted to whoever is bearing the 'canti'. The whole piece may, at any given point, be related to the chord of E flat. The work falls into three main sections: Requiem aeternam, Dies Irae, and Requiescat in pace.

Key words of the Requiem Mass are sung by the adult choirs, in conjunction with early Irish poetry, which is nearly always allotted to the extremely high soprano soloist; but all these things stand as 'adult embellishments' to the children's games about death and courtship. These games are the most important thing in the piece, reflecting or commenting on what the 'adults' are singing.

Much has been done to corrupt children, and television and comics have hardly helped. As David Holbrook writes in his introduction to 'Children's Singing Games', 'We have offended our little ones, and ought to have millstones hung around our necks'.

If it may seem that I am using the theatrical prop of 'child sentiment', then I can only say that the idea of the piece is inseparable from the music. I do believe in a very strong connection between death and children; and that their enacting of the mysterious 'rite of death' in street games is very moving. The children's songs are untouched (apart from all being transposed into E flat major), and are given a context within the framework of sections of the mass that I have used. There is a central character, Jenny Jones, a little girl who is picked as a victim at the outset to undergo the rite of death. It is over the corpse of Jenny Jones that the children dance at one point in the 'Confutatis maledictis', swirling bull-roarers to scare away evil spirits. This, though handed down to children, has its origin in a funeral rite in the lowlands of Scotland. In origin, hop-scotch represents the path through life to death, or purgatory to paradise - which perhaps is the same thing. (Incidentally, Peguy's description of Paradise contains a reference to children playing hop-scotch.) The children play a very slow, rhythmically articulated game of hop-scotch during the 'Tuba mirum', and then later combine this with swinging games to release a soul from purgatory by attempting to pluck something off the front of the swing. Priests in Bolivia used to swing on gigantic swings for 12 hours on All Souls' Day for the same purpose. The children swing to nonsense rhymes such as, 'Die pussy die, shut your little eye, when you wake find a cake, die pussy die'. This particular rhyme is changed as the swing 'dies' at the end of the 'Recordare' section in the mass. The mock resurrection of Jenny Jones which comes after the 'Confutatis maledictis' serves as an outlet of escape from the claustrophobic atmosphere of death and mourning. Jenny Jones jumps up and chases the other children away as they shout 'The Ghost'.

Courtship games also took place at funerals, and children have preserved this rite (in certain parts of Ireland this continues to the present day). In a way that the children enact by pantomime the apparent random nature of gods choosing a victim for the rite of death, so in courtship the girl who has to choose a lover is random. An echo of the 'Lacrymosa' ends the 'Dies Irae' in conjunction with 'Poor Mary what are you weeping for on a bright summer's day?'

The final second, 'Requiescat in pace', contains much symbolism. Briefly it is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin put into the mouth of a mourner, 'that I may keen with you your own dear Son', set against the Latin text, Henry Vaughan's 'They are all gone into the world of light', and Cardinal Newman's hymn 'Lead, kindly light'. The idea of using this hymn, which I love more than any other, must have had its origin in the memorial service for Mahatma Gandhi held in St. Paul's Cathedral. Indian classical music was played by Indian musicians up by the alter, and magically this music terminated as 'Lead, Kindly light' started, sung by the choir at the other end of the Cathedral. It was deeply moving, not only because of the juxtaposition, but also because of the innate dignity of the music just heard. During this last section, the children sing their own parody of 'Mary had a little lamb... her father shot it dead', and they begin to dismember a toy lamb as 'Mary sits a-weeping' in the centre of a ring. The children later put the lamb together again as all the forces gradually converge on the chord of E flat, and giant toy tops in E flat are started. Humming tops were used in primitive Christian practice on Easter morning to proclaim the risen Christ. The ghost of Jenny Jones reappears, touches Mary, who is 'weeping for a sweetheart', and the game Jenny Jones starts all over again with the girl who was Mary before as Jenny.

I have compiled the libretto of THE CELTIC REQUIEM myself. The words are taken from the Missa pro Defunctis, poems of Blathmac, son of Cu Brettan, a poem by Henry Vaughan, a hymn by Cardinal Newman, a whole mass of children's singing games and nonsense rhymes mostly written by children....

CELTIC REQUIEM was first performed on 16 July 1969 by the London Sinfonietta, The London Sinfonietta Chorus and children from Little Missenden Village School, conducted by myself at the Royal Festival Hall, London.

John Tavener 1969


A Celtic Requiem: 1. Requiem Aeternam
A Celtic Requiem: 2. Dies Irae
A Celtic Requiem: 3. Requiescat In Pace


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