Although John Lennon is always thought of as the “arty” Beatle—which is unfair to Paul McCartney, who was actually more of an avant garde culture vulture than Lennon was—it was actually Ringo Starr who brought John Tavener’s “dramatic cantata,” The Whale to Apple Records.
Here’s how the YouTube uploader, DarcoEddie descriped the work:
The Whale is a challenging, two-part, half hour mix of esoteric, avant garde classical adventurism—a kindred spirit of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “Lux Aeterna” (for 16 unaccompanied voices) and Frank Zappa’s later, neo-operatic musings for 200 Motels.
That’s a pretty dead-on description. I thought the Wikipedia description was amusing:
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.
From Tavener’s own website:
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 encyclopaedic 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. Although The Whale is a far more musically radical work, I feel closer nowadays to the simple, less radical Donne Sonnets.
During Tavener’s long career he has become one of the best-loved British composers of his generation. Tavener became “Sir John” in 2000 when he was knighted for his services to music. He is the winner of an Ivor Novello Award.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The William S. Burroughs/Beatles Connection