Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta for its inaugural concert

  • 2(pic,afl)22(bcl)2(cbn)/4331/timp.8perc(cel)/hp.amp pf.grand org.Horg/str(no vn)/tape
  • SATB
  • mezzo soprano, bass, speaker
  • 32 min

Programme Note

This was the first idea which came to me: these notes and the rhythmic interversions form the basis of a fantasy on the Biblical allegory ‘Jonah and the Whale’. A fantasy which grew around the text from the Vulgate, and at times moved so far from it that I decided to call the piece The Whale.

Sanctus bells was another sound from which the piece grew, and a chance purchase of some bells proved their pitches and intervals to be relevant to the music.

Ideas were very abundant in the first stages of The Whale, and I owe a great deal to the constant enthusiasm and encouragement shown at this and at all times by David Lumsdaine.

The ‘fantasy’ grew and perhaps at times nearly ‘swallowed’ the biblical text; so the swallowing of Jonah became almost ‘literal’ in a musical sense.

The sections which are pure ‘fantasy’ in The Whale are informed by a deliberate monotony, and are always characterised by a rather dry ‘drum-beat’. These sections occur three times in the piece, first at the beginning, then at the middle of the ‘Melodrama and Pantomime’, in a very soft bell-like passage representing the storm, and finally towards the end of the prayer when Jonah is in the belly of the Whale.

The Whale was a very exciting musical experience for me, and the composition of it took over a year with only a few interruptions. It may be of superficial interest to note that I visited Cornwall at the height of winter in an abortive attempt to see a real whale.

The Whale seems musically a long way from me now, but it was something that I had to write and if its youthful exuberance seems excessive, I still stand by it.

I completed The Whale fifteen years ago in Tythe Barn, the home of Lady Birley to whom the work is dedicated.

John Tavener
Revised August 1983


The Whale: 1. Documentary
The Whale: 2. Melodrama And Pantomime
The Whale: 3. Invocation
The Whale: 4. The Storm
The Whale: 5. The Swallowing
The Whale: 6. The Prayer
The Whale: 7. In The Belly
The Whale: 8. The Vomiting


Preview the score