CHILDREN OF MEN
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton: If you had asked me at the beginning of 2006 to name the working composer least likely to score a film during the year, I would have probably said Sir John Tavener. 62-year-old Tavener is as profound and well-respected a composer as can be, a darling of the classical set, a man seriously dedicated to his art, and whose deeply-held Orthodox Christian religious beliefs are the cornerstone of the 300 or so works he has written since the mid 1960s. This is the man who was chosen by the British government to write the deeply spiritual and moving music for the funeral of Princess Diana. The idea of him being hired to score a Hollywood film was about as likely as, say, Steve Reich scoring the next Spielberg movie, or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen scoring Scary Movie 5. His music has been featured in films before, but never has he written anything specifically for one. But yet, here he is, scoring Children of Men for director Alfonso Cuarón, whose last movie was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The world is a strange place indeed.
To be fair, Children of Men is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster. Yes, it has a commercial cast and a well-known director, and it can broadly be categorized as “dystopian science fiction”, but in many ways it is as dark and thought-provoking a film as one can imagine. Set in London in 2027, it shows a future where humanity is on the brink of total societal breakdown. The human race, as a species, has become sterile. No babies have been born for 18 years, and the world’s scientists have not been able to explain why. With the dawning realization that the human race may be dying out, and may have less than 100 years to live, the world’s order begins to break down and decay, leading to global terrorism, the destruction of the environment, and untold millions of refugees. The crux of the plot revolves around Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a middle-ranking civil servant in what remains of British government, who becomes party to some potentially cataclysmic news: a West African woman named Kee, who is being hidden by a shady organisation known as The Fishes, is pregnant… The film, which also stars Julianne Moore, Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor, has been one of the best-reviewed films of the year.
As one might expect, Tavener’s music for Children of Men is not a traditional “sit down and watch the film and compose-to-picture” kind of film score. His main original contribution is a 15-minute tone poem entitled “Fragments of a Prayer”, which he describes as a ‘musical and spiritual reaction to Alfonso’s film’. The piece is a slow, meditative, sacred-sounding work for a string orchestra, Tibetan temple bowls, and the crystal clear voice of mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who continually intones disjointed words in Latin, German and Sanskrit: ‘mata’, meaning ‘mother’, ‘pahi mam’, meaning ‘protect me’, ‘avatara’, meaning ‘saviour’, and the ubiquitous “alleluia”. And that’s the original piece. Cuarón uses it liberally throughout the film, editing it down into cue-sized nuggets, and then mixing and matching it with a variety of songs, as well as other, pre-existing classical pieces by Tavener, Handel, Mahler and Krzysztof Penderecki.
To be honest, the other Tavener pieces aren’t much different from the new work. All of them are solemn, deeply liturgical medications on the meaning of life, religion, faith and spirituality, and all are written predominantly for string orchestras, solo voices, and ancient Eastern percussion ensembles. “Eternity’s Sunrise”, which was written in 1997 and features lyrics based on the poetry of William Blake, is the piece he dedicated to Princess Diana after her death, and features angelic vocal work from Patricia Rozario and baroque orchestrations complete with hand bells, making it an ideal companion piece to the new work.
“Song of the Angel”, from 1994, was written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, was originally performed by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and soprano Edna Mitchell, and is another setting of the word ‘alleluia’ in a soft, quietly ecstatic religious form. “The Lamb”, from 1982, is a traditionally beautiful four-note choral piece based around a repeated 7-note motif, and is supposed to signify the innocence and simplicity of a child’s world view. The dramatic “Mother and Child” from 2002 is a celebration of the miracle of childbirth, and features a large chorus, church organ, and Hindu temple gongs. The choir follows the Greek-language text of ecclesiastical poet Brian Keeble, and Tavener describes his own work as ‘at once tender, ecstatic, and luminous”, and as it develops, the music gradually expands in scope and volume into to an enormous musical statement of great power and resonance. “Mother of God, Here I Stand”, one of the many anthems from his enormous 2004 work ‘The Veil of the Temple’, is a warm and inviting string-led refrain of simple elegance and thematic cohesion, which rounds the album off on a definite note of hope and optimism.
The three non-Tavener works actually provide a welcome respite from the otherwise overwhelming seriousness of the sacred choral work. Handel’s “War, He Sung, is Toil and Trouble”, from his 1736 opera Alexander’s Feast, sounds like it was the inspiration for John Williams’ central song from Prisoner of Azkaban, and features a pleasantly prancing melody for harpsichord and lilting strings. Mahler’s “Nun Will Die Sonn’ So Hell Aufgeh” is the first movement of the 1901 song cycle Kindertotenlieder, or Songs of the Death of Children, and is suitably melodramatic, wallowing in the in rich romantic poignancy and emotional resonance the German-language lyrics provide. At the other end of the scale, Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960 masterwork “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” is about as difficult a piece of music as one could ever encounter: written for 52 string players, and dripping with hypertonality, dissonance, and general musical carnage, it directs the orchestra to play at various vague points in their range, or to concentrate on certain textural effects, resulting in a piece which is as challenging to listen to as it is to perform.
Children of Men is probably the most unusual album Varése Sarabande has released in many years, and your appreciation of the music on it will depend totally on your tolerance for sacred choral music and avant-garde dissonance of the highest order. This is not an album for those who think Pirates of the Caribbean is the pinnacle of the art form. When you think about the meanings behind Tavener’s works – motherhood, birth, rebirth, and redemption in the eyes of God – one can almost envisage this being the kind of music Tavener would have written had he been commissioned to write an entire hour-long score, and as such his attachment to the project is not as bemusing as it first appears. Scores like this could also indicate a certain softening on the part of the classical elite when it comes to film music, and the long-held perception by some of them that writing music for movies somehow ‘cheapens’ the art form. Let’s hope it continues – and you never know, next year we might get James MacMillan or Judith Weir scoring the big summer blockbuster.
Overall, though, I enjoyed Children of Men a lot. Tavener’s work, while all very much cut from the same cloth, has a soothing aspect, and a pleasant, calming aura which make sit very easy to simply sit and listen to. The shifting textures, angelic vocal work, and occasional bursts of gently romantic thematic content makes for a cohesive album presentation, as well as an appropriate accompaniment for a deep and meaningful film, while Penderecki’s screeching, nightmarish musical chaos challenges the listener aurally and intellectually in the context of the vision of the future it accompanies.
Click here to read Clark Douglas’s review of the Children of Men as heard in the film.
Running Time: 70 minutes 30 seconds
- Fragments of a Prayer (15:22)
- Eternity’s Sunrise (10:53)
- War, He Sung, is Toil and Trouble (written by Georg Friedrich Handel) (4:45)
- Nun Will Die Sonn’ So Hell Aufgeh (written by Gustav Mahler) (5:32)
- Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (written by Krzysztof Penderecki) (10:00)
- Song of the Angel (4:35)
- The Lamb (3:20)
- Mother and Child (12:39)
- Mother of God, Here I Stand (3:28)
Varése Sarabande VSD-6769 (2006)
Music composed and conducted by John Tavener. Special vocal performances by Sarah Connolly. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Album produced by John Tavener and Simon Rhodes.
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