Sir Peter Maxwell Davies


Opera in two acts

audio sample: Taverner
opus number: 45
completion date: 1970
duration: 130 minutes
movement titles: Act 1

1. A Court Room
2. The Chapel
3. The Throne Room
4. The Same

Act 2

1. The Courtroom
2. The Throne Room
3. The Chapel
4. The Market-Place in Boston, Lincolnshire
scoring: Libretto: Peter Maxwell Davies
world premiere: 12 July 1972, Royal Opera House, London
Edward Downes conductor, Michael Geliot producer, Ralph Koltai designer
Cast: Ragnar Ulfung (John Taverner), Benjamin Luxon (Jester), and Raimund Herincx (White Abbot), Gillian Knight (Rose Parrowe), Gwynne Howell (Richard Taverner), John Lannigan (Cardinal), Noel Mangin (King), James Bowman (Priest Confessor)
publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
category: Dramatic work
text: Peter Maxwell Davies
programme note: Short Note by Paul Griffiths

Davies's opera is based on episodes from the life and legend of John Taverner, one of the outstanding English composers of the early Tudor period. It is the story of a man whose conversion to some ruthless system of belief causes him to deny essential parts of himself, for Taverner was once supposed to have stopped composing at the time of Reformation and turned to the persecution of the church he had once adorned with his music.

The first scene finds him on trial before the White Abbot, accused of following the Lutheran heresy. Witnesses are heard, and the chorus comments, but before judgement can be given Taverner is saved by the intervention of the Cardinal (not named as Wolsey), who needs him for his art. Act 1, Scene 2 shows him debating for himself the religious meaning of his music, while monks chant. Then the scene shifts from chapel to throne room, where the King (not named as Henry VIII) is instructing the Cardinal to obtain him a divorce, while both seem to be puppets in the hands of the Jester; the orchestra here is silent, the scene being accompanied by music for Renaissance period ensemble. The Jester, or Death as he becomes, then calls forth Taverner (and the orchestra). Taverner is confused by cheapjack religious stunts, and brought to seize a sword against Catholic iniquities.

The second act is again in four scenes, and is a black version of the first. There is first another trial, nightmarishly accelerated, in which Taverner is now the judge and the White Abbot the accused, the crime this time being that of adhering to the old religion. At the climax a Wheel of Fortune appears, ridden by the Jester. Then comes a second throne room scene, again accompanied by Renaissance instruments, though now in tart parodies of period dances and keyboard pieces that carry the action forward through the sixteenth century. Monarch and churchman discuss the progress of the Reformation, while the Jester revests the latter as an Anglican Archbishop. The second chapel scene has the White Abbot and his monks at mass, while Taverner criticizes himself for his earlier credulity. A captain enters and spills the consecrated wine, whereupon the monks leave, singing an original Benedictus by Taverner. The final scene is then a big choral tableau in which the White Abbot is brought forward for burning at the stake, and in which Taverner becomes aware that he has destroyed the better part of himself.

The first production, at Covent Garden in 1972, was on a single set, but the score includes orchestral transitions that allow for scene changes, quite apart from their function of hurrying forward the continuous musical flow. There was a production in Stockholm in 1984, and the American première took place (appropriately) in Boston in 1986.

Deutsche Anmerkungen (kurz)

Davies' bislang einzige abendfüllende Oper basiert auf Episoden aus Leben under legendärer Existenz des John Taverner, eines der bedeutendsten englischen Komponisten der frühen Tudor-Zeit. Es handelt sich um die Geschichte eines Mannes, der infolge seiner Bekehrung zu einem erbarmungslosen Glaubenssystem dazu getrieben wird, wesentliche Teile seiner selbst zu verleugnen: denn man nimmt an, Taverner habe zur Zeit der Reformation das Komponieren aufgegeben und sich der Verfolgung jener Kirche gewidmet, die er einst mit seiner Musik verherrlicht hatte.

Der erste Szene zeigt ihn im Verhör vor dem Weißsen Abt, der ihn beschuldigt, der lutherischen Ketzerei anzuhängen. Zeugen werden gehört, under der Chor kommentiert; doch noch bevor das Urteil ergehen kann, wird Taverner gerettet durch die Intervention des (nich namentlich als Wolsey augewiesenen) Kardinals, der ihn als Künstler benötigt. In der Zweiten Szene des ersten Aktes setzt Taverner sich mit der religiösen Bedeutung seiner Musik auseinander. Mönche singen im Hintergrund. Dann wechselt der Schauplatz von der Kirche in den Thronsaal: der (nicht namentlich als Heinrich VIII. ausgewiesene} König unterrichtet den Kardinal über sein Scheidungsbegehren, wobie beide als Marionetten in der Hand des Narren erscheinen. Hier schweigt das Orchester; die ganze Szene wird nur von Music für Renaissanceinstrumente begleitet. Der Narr - er hat sich inzwischen in den Tod verwandelt - ruft Taverner (und das orchester), auf den Plan. Taverner wird durch billige religiöse Zauertricks verblendet und dazu bestimmt, gegen die Frevel der katholischen Kirche zu Felde zu ziehen.

Der zweite Akt, wiederum in vier Szenen gegliedert, ist gewissermaßen ein schwarzes Gegenstück der ersten. Hier findet zunächst ein weiteres, alptraumhaft beschleunigtes Verhör statt; jetzt aber fungiert Taverner also Richter und der Weiße Abt als Angeklagter, der nun seinerseits des Verbrechens, der alten Religion anzuhängen, beschuldigt wird. Auf dem Höhepunkt der Szene wird das Rad der Fortuna sichtbar, auf dem der Narr reitet. Darauf folgt eine zweite Thronsaalszene, wiederum von Renaissanceinstrumenten begleitet; hier indes spielen sie vorab Parodien auf Orgel - und Tanzmusic der Zeit, welche die Handlung analog zur stilistischen Entwicklung im 16. Jahrhundert vorantreiben. Monarch under Kirchenfürst diskutieren über den Fortschritt der Reformation, während der Kardinal vom Narren als anglikanischer Erzbischof verkeider wird. Die zweite Kirchenszene zeigt den Weißen Abt und seine Mönche bei der Messe und Zugleich Taverner, der mit sich selbst wegen seiner früheren Leichtgläubigleit ins Gericht geht. Ein Hauptmann tritt auf und verschüttet den geweihten Wein, worauf die Mönche -ein orginales Benedictus von Taverner sigend - abziehen. Die Schlußszene ist ein großses Chortableau: der Abt wird zur Hinrichtung auf denScheiterhaufen gefürht, und Taverner erkennt, daß er den besseren Teil seiner selbst vernichtet hat.

Bei der Uraufführung 1972 in Covent Garden wurde die Oper in Rahmen eines einzigen Bühnenbilds präsentiert, doch enthält die Partitur orchestrale Übergänge, die Szenenwechsel durchaus möglich machen - ganz abgesehen davon, daß sie den kontinuierlichen musikalischen Fluß vorantreiben. Weitere Aufführungen fanden 1984 in Stockholm und 1986 in Boston statt.

Extended Note II by Mike Seabrook ©

The opera itself is a setting of a text by Max himself, in two acts of four scenes each. Each scene is one episode from the life of the Tudor composer, and the eight taken as a whole offer a fairly complete account of the most significant events in that life, so far as the facts of the life are known. In a prefatory note to the libretto Max says that he combed an enormous quantity of documents from Taverner's time, including state papers, letters, contemporary sermons, biographies, diaries, plays and poetry, records of trials for heresy and so forth, 'give the record of John Taverner as wide an application and meaning as possible'. The text is, indeed, largely made up of direct quotations from such sources, gathered together and spliced into a continuous sequence.

The few known facts of Taverner's life can be set out very briefly. He was born about 1490. Nothing is known until 1526, when he went to Oxford to be master of the choir in the Chapel of Cardinal's College (later renamed Christ Church). Two years later he was tried and imprisoned by the Roman Catholic authorities for harbouring heretical books, but was later freed by no less a figure than Wolsey. This may have been because of admiration for Taverner's music, but the words used by Wolsey are at least ambiguous and at worst against this belief: he is reputed to have said 'He was but a musician, but so he escaped.' Taverner left Oxford in 1530, and voluntarily brought his musical career to an end, in order to work as a paid agent of Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries.

The first scene is set in a courtroom, and is, according to the composer's instructions, extremely striking, with the décor, dress and everything else all in bold black and white. The only splash of colour to appear in this scene will be the scarlet robes of a Cardinal who enters later.

The scene shows Taverner on trial for possessing heretical books, and takes the form of a kind of kangaroo court, presided over by the White Abbot, with four witnesses (Taverner's father, his mistress, his priest-confessor and a boy of his college chapel choir) giving sketchy 'evidence' against Taverner. Taverner defends himself by way of outspoken assaults on Catholicism, and a chorus, a council of learned men, interjects occasional sententious sentiments, after the manner of the chorus in Greek tragedy.

The second scene takes place in his chapel, with a chorus of monks intoning in Latin on his life, and Taverner speculating aloud in English whether to break out in violence against the Church, but eventually deciding in the space of a single line to put his trust in God and to wait and see what happens to him. This very short scene ends with a cracked fanfare which also serves to introduce scene 3. This shows the King - actually Henry VIII - talking to the Cardinal - actually Wolsey. Taverner is absent, and the orchestra is silent, replaced by an on-stage consort of viols and lute. The King talks cynically about how a breach with Rome will be a great thing for him, and how it will allow him to appropriate vast amounts of money, get rid of his wife and put his mistress on the throne - while claiming all the time that it is the prickings of his conscience that make him do these things, in the name of Protestantism. The Cardinal dithers, but finally decides to try to persuade the Pope to accept the King's pleas. The Jester, behaving like his counterpart in a Shakespearean drama, comments drily on the self-serving deceits of both sides.

The fourth scene opens with the Jester, now revealed as Death, calling on Taverner to Confess. As Taverner recognizes his interrogator, we hear from the first time in the opera the Death Chord, which we have encountered several times before, both in the Taverner Fantasias and in the Seven In Nomine. This chord, of D, F sharp, E and G sharp, now becomes the leitmotif of the jester in his true persona of Death. Two monks, one in black, the other in white, enter, and the two of them and Death confuse Taverner to a point at which he is incapable of telling good from evil. The two monks remove their cowls to reveal their features: the white monk is revealed as a beast, the black as a man of noble features, emphasizing the ambiguous nature of good and evil. The two monks point out that Christ is irrevocably entwined with Judas, Pilate and the Passion - a metaphor pointing out that good and evil are often inseparable and mutually dependent: without evil, how could we measure good?

Death now intervenes to bombard Taverner with statistical data about the Church, to make him realize what is stacked up against him if he takes on the Roman church. Taverner finally makes up his mind which way he is going to jump, and condemns the impediments of Rome as devices of the Antichrist. At the word 'antichrist' the antichrist itself appears, in the form of a pope with the face of an ape, and declares that it is virtuous to slaughter Protestants. Taverner reiterates his hatred of Rome and declares his determination to wage war on it.

Death tells him that this is not enough, but that he must also renounce his own humanity, his beloved music, to prove his sincerity, and calls on Taverner's mistress, personifying his music. She tells him that he is not intended to understand divine nature, except as a simple musician, speaking through his songs. In a passionate and moving cameo, she almost persuades Taverner, actually taking his hand and beginning to lead him off to music and peace. But Death will not give him up, and stages a street Passion play, with Death himself playing a figure called Joking Jesus, acting out a macabre parody of Christ crucified. This figure convinces Taverner that his place is as a foot soldier against Rome on behalf of his new faith; and in this scene Max introduces perhaps his most savage sideswipe against religion in the entire opera, when God the Father appears, offering rewards to those who 'purge our land from heretical filth'. Taverner signs his confession, saying that he repents bitterly having 'made songs to popish ditties in the time of my blindness'. Taverner swears that he is as one reborn, and promises to defend Christ's faith with sword and fire, shouting the tenets of his new faith with the exultation of the zealot.

The second act of the opera opens with another trial scene, this time a deliberate parody of the first scene of Act 1. This time it is Taverner who is the inquisitor, and the White Abbot who is the defendant: Taverner's conversion from Rome was followed, historically, by the English Reformation; in the opera the first serves as an analogy for the second. The witnesses are the same characters in different guises, and the music is based on the same material. The same kind of kangaroo court hustles the Abbot through the proceedings to his sentence to burn at the stake. At the point where the Cardinal intervened to pardon Taverner in the first act, a Cardinal enters now; but he has no face, symbolizing his total loss of power. The scene closes with Death manipulating the Wheel of Fortune, and the chorus setting out one of the pivotal questions of the whole opera: St. Michael warred with the serpent, and cast it down; but who can tell the difference between the two?

The next scene is another confrontation between the King and the Cardinal. It begins with the Cardinal informing the King that his second marriage is forbidden on pain of excommunication, and that his cause is forbidden to all members of the true Church. The King replies with a denunciation of the Roman Church, claiming that this is being done in the name and interest of the people. As his denunciation proceeds, Death gradually strips the Cardinal of his regalia, and replaces it with that of an Anglican Archbishop, who promptly delivers to the King everything he wants.

Scene 3 is set in the chapel, in which the condemned White Abbot and his monks are saying mass in Latin, with several references to the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot. Taverner enters at a point neatly associating him with Judas, and immediately damns the Church of Rome for its excessive concern with material wealth and for its corruption. The Abbot and monks continue to celebrate the mass in quiet dignity. Then the King's soldiers burst in and proclaim the dissolution of the monasteries. Their captain snatches the communion wine from the Abbot's hand and pours it on the floor, while the monks sing one of Taverner's own most celebrated settings: the Benedictus from Gloria Tibi Trinitas.

The final scene of the opera takes place in Boston, Lincolnshire, with the Stump in the background. The scene depicts the final condemnation and burning of the Ahite Abbot at the stake. There is no reprieve: at the end the faggots are lit and the Abbot burns - the freshly converted zealot being shown to be more perfectly merciless in the Lord's work than even the established order; or an illustration, perhaps, of the old adage about the convert being more Catholic than the Pope!

Given the general shortage of known facts about Taverner, and the episodic nature of the opera, it is clear that Max's work is true to such facts as we have; but it would be fatuous to regard it as an opera 'about' Taverner, or 'about' the English Reformation - or even 'about' the appalling transformation in Taverner's soul brought about by religious fanaticism. It is plain that the opera uses Taverner as an analogy, perhaps even allegory is a permissible term. It speaks, or seeks to speak, through the character of Taverner and what happened to his time, for the pervasion of religion by men and the perversion of men by religion - all men so perverted, and all religions so perverted. It is also clear that while Max was careful to ask no direct questions, and even more careful to answer none, his whole opera is in fact a single enormous question: religious faith does this to people. Why?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Max's life-long fascination with religion. There is a distaste for and distrust of religion and his perennial fascination for it. This opera is certainly the largest, and one of the most vivid, examples of it finding expression in his work.

Apart from the obvious swipes at religion in the text - the Jester's ironical comments on the self-seeking nature of both players in the King-versus-Church divide in Act 1, scene 3 and so on - the opera is replete with references to the anti-intellectual cast of mind of the Church, but also, more importantly, of religion itself, as filtered through the minds and souls of its adherents, its hostility to intellectual advance and questing for knowledge by the individual. The Church's attitude that knowledge is better undiscovered if it casts doubt on established dogma is clearly in the composer's mind when Death remarks (in the Boosey & Hawkes libretto of the opera, page 20): 'Your assiduous study and learning from hidden books gave you scruples about the validity of your religion.' Shortly after this, Death again the speaker, there is an extended reference to 'the indestructible heritage of the church', followed by the great catalogue of things that will be piled up against Taverner if he takes on the Roman Church: 'the fourteen articles of faith... the ten commandments of the Law, two evangelical precepts of charity, the seven works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven opposing virtues, and the seven sacraments of grace' - symbolizing the dead weight of dogma, ideology, ideas anchored in concrete, and the face set resolutely against all change, however rational it may be.

A short while later in the same scene - Act 1, scene 4 - Taverner is forced to reject his father and his mistress, the latter clad to represent Music. This is perhaps the most poignant and moving scene in the opera, because it shows the main character, at least, in a more human light than elsewhere. But it cannot be other than a savage indictment of the intemperate, insensate and obsessive core of religion, its fundamental unreasonableness, its belief in and portrayal of a world in which all is black and white, where there is no compromise, no worldliness, no measure, no balance: no reason.

All this is surely symbolized and epitomized by one telling stroke of inspiration in the casting: it is surely no accident that it is the character of Death who has to administer Taverner's religious instruction; religion = the death of thought, the death of the human virtues of measure, balance and so on.

The appearance of God the Father in the same scene in the person of the bloated, hypocritical Priest-Confessor is too obvious to need comment; but it was surely a swipe at conventional notions of the godhead to assign God the Father the voice of a high, querulous countertenor. And near the end of this scene, just before Taverner rises, converted, and cries ecstatically his joy in his born-again state, the cynical Death has a short speech, one of the most telling in the entire piece, in which he says: 'But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of a man, passeth through waterless places, seeking rest, and findeth it not.' Then he says 'I will return into my house whence I came, and when he finds it empty, swept clean, he enters and dwells there with seven other spirits, more evil than himself, and the last state of the man is worse than the first.' This must surely be a counterblast again the notions of conversion, missionary proselytizing, 'one convert is worth a dozen saints', and most of all the zealotry of the born-again - a direct reference to what follows in Taverner's own speech, next, as he rises and declares himself a loyal foot-soldier of the Lord.

Max is equally hostile to the equation of the church with the state, as shown by the remark on page 28 that: 'in great matters of state it counts little who we are or what we feel'. For Max, clearly, when religion = the state, he wants no part of it in either guise. Both bodies are guilty of the cynical subversion of the individual - and, by implication, of the individual conscience - to the expediency of the state.

Perhaps the most appalled view of religion and clerics is on page 33 of the Boosey & Hawkes libretto, when the Archbishop says 'England is our storehouse of delights, a very inexhaustible well, where much can be extracted from many.'

If that is the most cynical view of religion, itself at its most cynical, the most paradoxical part of the whole piece is that the character of Taverner is convincingly sincere throughout. There is nowhere in the opera any ground for suspecting him of being merely a cynical hypocrite. Both during his own trial in Act 1, scene 1, and later when he is himself hunting with the hounds, he carries authentic conviction at all times. This is clearly the question Max asks most urgently of all: how can a man behave this way? How can he behave like this and live with himself? How can he behave this way and remain sane? What is it about religious faith that twists people into doing this kind of thing? What is it about people that makes them need religion so much that they are willing to be twisted this way, if that is the price religion costs? Remember chorus asking the question: St. Michael warred with the serpent, but who can tell one from the other? Max asks us to ponder the question, 'how can religion enable a man to swear one thing at one time, and then, a brief moment later, to swear the opposite with equal vehemence, and be equally sincere in both?' All the intense black and white imagery of the set designs - which were stipulated very precisely by Max himself, rather than being left to the whim of individual designers and directors - serve this fundamental paradox, the one overwhelming question, of a man almost literally swearing black is white and white black. This is Max confronting religion with its alter-ego, the religious faithful with their worst nightmares: if religious faith, potentially uplifting, can do its adherents the things it clearly can do, who is to say whether it is good or evil?

It is significant that Max nowhere offers any hint of an answer to any of these questions, but merely leaves them on the agenda for us to consider. The one thing he does make clear is his own response: an excoriating dislike of organized religion, of religiosity and of the established churches. The ferocity of his distaste for these things is in no way diminished, but, on the contrary, rather highlighted and concentrated, by his scrupulous avoidance of overstatement in the opera.

© Mike Seabrook

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
composer’s note: John Taverner was born around 1490, probably in Tattershall, whence he was summoned in 1526 by Wolsey to Cardinal's College, Oxford, for the post of 'Informator', which included playing the organ, and looking after the choristers at St. Frideswide's, now the Cathedral Church of Christ.

In 1528 he was accused, along with others employed at the college, of heresy, but was released from prison at the personal intervention of Cardinal Wolsey.

After the religious changes brought about by Henry VIII, Taverner became an agent of Thomas Cromwell, and a ruthless persecutor and destroyer of monastic establishments. We assume he gave up music - the works we know predate this period. Foxe records that he 'reptented him very much that he had made songs to popish ditties in the time of his blindness', but the fact remains that these 'songs' are as fine as anything written in Europe at the time, and constitute some of the best music of our English inheritance.

The letters describing the burning of the Rood and the monk at Boston, quoted in Act 2, scene 4, are from Taverner's own hand, addressed to Cromwell.

In the text, I have not only drawn on the few facts known of Taverner, but combed state papers, letters, contemporary sermons, biographies, diaries, poetry, plays, records of heresy trials, etc., to give the record of John Taverner as wide an application and meaning as possible. The text, therefore, consists of quotations, applied and ordered to suit the sense and circumstance.

I started sketching in 1956, while studying in Manchester, and completed the text in 1962 at Princeton, New Jersey, and the music in 1968 in Dorset. After the fire at my cottage there, some of it had to be reworked from sketches.
synopsis: Extended Note I by Paul Griffiths ©


John Taverner, a composer of the early sixteenth century, is on trial for his Lutheran beliefs. He is condemned to the stake, but saved by the intervention of the Cardinal. He ponders where his beliefs have brought him; King and Cardinal prepare the way for the English Reformation. Then, persuaded by the Jester as Death, Taverner repudiates his Catholic church music and takes up the sword as a persecutor of the old religion.

The second act shadows the first. Taverner is now judge in a heresy trial, condemning the White Abbot. The King and the Cardinal complete the removal of the English Church from Rome. Taverner oversees the expulsion of monks from a monastery and the burning of the White Abbot, but in turning his back on so much of his own nature and past, he destroys himself.



John Taverner, composer, organist and choirmaster at Cardinal College in Oxford, is on trial for his involvement in Lutheran heresy. The time is just before the English Reformation (the events on which this scene is based in fact took place in 1528). The White Abbot, who is to be the judge in Taverner's trial, calls for the accused to be brought in. Once Taverner is in the court, the White Abbot reads out the indictment, to which the musician replies by stating his doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation ('My Lord, the first charge I grant'). The White Abbot warns him that he is risking his life by being obdurate, and the chorus reinforces the message that heresy must be eradicated.

The trial then proceeds to the calling of witnesses. Richard Taverner, the composer's father, describes his son as being always angry with what he most loves ('My lord Abbot, we always bade him ware of his wrath'). He declares too that 'his music is witness that he believes', and begs for mercy, but the chorus repeats its implacable warning. Then Rose Parrowe, Taverner's mistress and eventual wife, pleads that he was swayed by plausible acquaintances ('Good my lord, he was my steadfast heart'), but again the White Abbot and the chorus insist that the true faith must be protected.

Third of the witnesses is Taverner's Priest-Confessor, a Monteverdian countertenor who accepts a bribe ('The confessional is not violated') and spills out his accusations. Lastly, despite Taverner's request that a child not be called into the court, one of his choristers adds more weight to the damning testimony ('Lord Abbot, I discovered the Informator').

The White Abbot condemns Taverner to burning at the stake, but at once distant trumpets herald the arrival of the Cardinal (the character in the opera is not named, but clearly Wolsey is the model). He pardons Taverner because he needs him as a musician for his college ('My Lord Abbot and members of our holy court'). He then departs for council with the King, whither we shall follow him in the third scene of the act.


Meanwhile Taverner is back at his work, standing at a desk while the monks in the chapel are apparently singing the office, though in fact they are recapitulating in Latin the story so far, and doing so to music which, like so much in the opera, is developed from the original, Taverner's own.

In an impassioned soliloquy ('If I follow their lying vanities'), Taverner gives voice to his doubts. Since he cannot honestly return to the safe dictates of the Church, he must find out the truth for himself. But how is he to distinguish truth from falsehood? He ends by putting his trust firmly in God, and his prayer is taken up in Latin as a dark monotone chant by the monks as they leave.

The ensuing transition, one of the longer orchestral passages that link the scenes in each act, leads from the predominantly slow tempo of this chapel scene up to a presto for the fanfares that open the next.


The orchestra now falls silent, and the burden of the musical argument is taken over by a small group of musicians playing lute and viols on stage. The dramatic argument meanwhile is conducted between the King and the Cardinal.

Just as the Cardinal is not named as Wolsey, so the King is not named as Henry VIII, but the situation is theirs. The King speaks of the need for reformation in the Church, and of his own need for a divorce. The Cardinal temporizes, and the King is driven to declare his own misgivings about the Catholic faith ('We begin to doubt if the Creature of Rome'). He appeals to conscience as the highest court, whereupon the Cardinal, left alone, expresses his anxiety about the dangerous course events must take, and the Jester, who all along has been pointing out the real motives of King and Cardinal, also whispers of fear as he reveals himself as Death.


The orchestra has gradually taken over from the stage musicians at the end of the last scene, and now without any transition the Jester calls upon Taverner in order to catechize him in his spiritual beliefs. He demands a confession so that the musician may save his soul, which appears as a white dove held by two monks, one in white, the other in black. They sing of seemingly incompatible doctrines, then strangle the dove and burn it.

Taverner is confused. The Jester seizes the moment to draw attention to all the superstitions, ceremonies and trifles that the Church has grafted onto primitive Christianity. Taverner is duly enraged, and has a vision of the Pope hysterically screeching as Antichrist.

The Jester, though, wants more from Taverner than the rejection of superfluity and idolatry ('But this is not enough, John'), for a just rage against distortion of truth can be turned into a soul-destroying nihilism. This is what the Jester now achieves, and he orders Taverner to reject his family and his art in the forms of Richard Taverner and Rose Parrowe. Rose sings as the composer's muse. It was, she says, natural for him to use his art in the service of the Church; he should not worry about theology but continue with his work of making music ('You used us, John'). If he denies his art, then he denies the most important part of himself.

Taverner is convinced by this crucial argument, but the reconciliation of musician and muse is interrupted when the Jester urgently calls for treble demons to rush on and mount a travesty of a street Passion play. The Priest-Confessor from the first scene appears as God the Father; the Jester mounts the Cross ('I pray you people'); and Richard Taverner and Rose Parrowe adopt the postures of St. John and the Virgin Mary.

The composer is mentally and morally shattered ('Here is the rest of all your business'). The vision disappears, and the Jester demands Taverner's confession. He repudiates his music ('I repent me very much that I have made songs to popish ditties in the time of my blindness') and collapses. Reinspired by the Jester, the composer finally rises up a new man: a Protestant zealot determined to further his new faith with the sword ('There shone about me a great light'). The Jester shrieks mock salutations.



Each scene of the second act reflects a scene in the first: in both cases the opening scene is a trial, but this time Taverner is the judge and the White Abbot the victim, a Catholic victim of post-Reformation Protestant persecution. Again the charge is heresy, to which the White Abbot replies by denouncing those who change their faith to suit the rimes ('Sir, it is to their eternal shame').

The witnesses are the same, and the chorus makes its interjections, but everything is hurried, nightmarish. Richard Taverner tells of the White Abbot's injuction to withstand the King's forces and hold fast to Rome; Rose, though resistant to being misused, accuses him of carnality. The Priest-Confessor is again paid for his testimony, and the boy gives evidence of idolatry. With relish, Taverner condemns the White Abbot to be burned at the stake. Once more the Cardinal attempts to interrupt the proceedings, but this time he has no face, and no voice. Instead we hear a wild spinning in the orchestra as a great Wheel of Fortune revolves on stage, spun by the Jester, Death.


This second Throne Room scene, like the first, is accompanied not by the pit orchestra but by a stage band - this time one of Renaissance wind instruments and organs, playing pastiches of period dances and keyboard fantasies. As the scene proceeds, the music's world moves forward from the early sixteenth century to the early seventeenth.

The Cardinal brings news that the Pope has prohibited the King's remarriage; the King determines to cut off payments to Rome, sure that the people are behind him. He then pronounces himself head of the Church in England, and the Jester re-vests the Cardinal as an Anglican Archbishop. He, as Archbishop, gives his blessing on the King's new marriage, and the two of them agree on the need to dissolve the monasteries.


The White Abbot and his monks are singing mass, using extracts from the Holy Week liturgy, including Christ's prophecy that one of his disciples would betray him. Taverner stiffens his resolve by remembering the party line on dissolution ('Charity is fled from our religious houses'). As the White Abbot moves towards the climax of the ceremony, so Taverner loudly declaims his horror at the 'scandal' and his own part in it, 'providing the furniture' in his music. The monks sing the Sanctus, and then at the moment of Elevation a Captain comes in to dispossess them. He pours the sanctified wine to the ground, and the monks depart singing the Benedictus from a mass by the historical Taverner.


The final scene corresponds to the last scene of the first act, but the earlier intimate dialogue is replaced by a big choral tableau. A crowd has assembled for the burning at the stake of the White Abbot ('This is the work of John Taverner'); as the people arrive, Taverner is writing an official report ('To the right honourable my singular good Lord Privy Seal'). He then moves to the stake, and calls on the White Abbot to say his last.

The White Abbot does so in the opera's longest solo ('I am fell into the hands of those'). He sings of the question at the heart of the opera, that of making moral decisions without reference to a tradition such as the Church has provided, of the opportunity for evil to take control when the barriers have been swept aside. Taverner signals for the fire to be lit, and the choir calls for mercy; Rose declares to Taverner that he has destroyed himself, and he sings a last intense prayer 'out of the lowest dungeon'. As the curtain falls, off stage recorders play his music, all that is left of the man.

© Paul Griffiths

This is a copyright note, and may not be reprinted or reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.
recording: BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen conductor
Stefan Asbury assistant conductor
London Sinfonietta Voices
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
New London Children’s Choir
Terry Edwards chorus master
Ronald Corp chorus master
Martyn Hill Taverner
David Wilson-Johnson Jester
Stephen Richardson Henry VIII
Fiona Kimm Virgin Mary
Michael Chance Priest/God
Quentin Hayes White Abbot
Peter Sidhom Richard Taverner
NMC D157 (available from November 2009)
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