The Beatles present John Tavener’s classical music curiosity, ‘The Whale’

Although the work was receiving rave reviews pretty much everywhere, and had been broadcast by BBC radio, it seemed that no record label had any interest in releasing John Tavener’s avant garde opera The Whale, before John Lennon brought it to Apple Records. The two had met at a party and later exchanged tape recordings. Lennon passed along some of the experimental music he was making with Yoko Ono and Tavener gave the Beatle a tape of his dramatic cantata.

Perfect for bringing a little classical music gravitas to Apple, The Whale is kindred spirit to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “Lux Aeterna” (for 16 unaccompanied voices) and Frank Zappa’s quasi-operatic musings for his 200 Motels soundtrack.

From the Wikipedia entry:

The Whale is loosely based on the biblical allegory of Jonah and the Whale, although Tavener admitted that “The ‘fantasy’ grew and perhaps at times nearly ‘swallowed’ the biblical text: so the swallowing of Jonah became almost ‘literal’ in the biblical sense.”

The libretto includes the words of an encyclopaedia entry describing certain facts about the whale, and this is contrasted with themes within the music which attempt to portray the reality of the whale itself, whose existence is greater than the sum of all the facts about it.

The Whale has eight sections: I. Documentary, II. Melodrama and Pantomime, III. Invocation. IV. The Storm, V. The Swallowing, VI. The Prayer. VII. In the Belly, and VIII. The Vomiting.

The Whale premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on January 24, 1968 when the composer was just 24 years old. It was recorded in July of 1970 and released as an album by Apple Records that same year. Ringo Starr’s voice can be heard on the recording via a loud hailer, and he would re-release The Whale in 1977 on his own Ring O’ Records label

In Tavener’s own words:

The Whale represented new territory for me.   Previously I had set straight biblical texts as in Credo and Cain and Abel, but in the story of Jonah and the whale it was interspersed with a surrealist section with the opening encyclopedic entry on whales. These occurred throughout the biblical narrative of The Whale, at the stomach and inside the belly of the whale. The Whale was dedicated to my wild Irish adopted godmother Lady Birley. It made a great impact at the inaugural concert of the London Sinfonieta with Alvar Liddell the great wartime broadcaster reading the encyclopaedic entry on Whales.

During Tavener’s long career he he became one of the best-loved British composers of his generation. Tavener was knighted for his services to music. He died in 2013 at the age of 69.


Posted by Richard Metzger



03:50 pm


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