John Tavener: God is With Us: A Christmas Proclamation
Known for his incredible catalogue of sacred vocal works, John Tavener has been described as “having a very rare gift of being able to bring an audience to a deep silence.” Although Tavener is largely celebrated for his choral works, he is also known for his chamber works such as The Protecting Veil, which was composed for cello and strings. God is With Us: A Christmas Proclamation was commissioned by Winchester Cathedral in tribute to Martin Neary, for his work at the Cathedral during 1972-1987. The first performance happened in December 1987, by the choir of Winchester Cathedral conducted by Martin Neary himself.
God is with us.
Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
The people that dwell in the shadow of death, upon them the
light has shined.
For unto us a child is born, for unto us a son is given,
God is with us,
And the government shall be upon his shoulder,
And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor,
God is with us,
The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth:
God is with us, Christ is born.
The piece is composed for SATB choir, baritone (or tenor) soloist and organ. Opening with the low voices singing a melismatic passage on the opening line ‘God is with us’. The rest of the choir join in from the second line, all moving perfectly in unison. They repeat the second line two more times, highlighting its importance in the text. The solo voice emerges for the next few lines with a bold and highly decorated solo. The choir completely stop at this point, leaving the soloist to their own devices. The word ‘darkness’ is emphasised with melismatic movement and a flurry of ornaments to emphasise its worth in the text.
The same happens in the next line on the word ‘shadow’. Coincidentally, both of these words have similar imagery of darkness, night time and the likes. The soloist begins the next line, with the choir entering on the word ‘us’, highlighting the communication between the choir and the text. Underneath the soloist the choir, in particular the lower voices, are singing the opening proclamation ‘God is with us’.
The same happens again in the next line. Once more the choir drop out, leaving the soloist on the line ‘And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor’. The same decorated movement happens on the word ‘Wonderful’, which shows the shift in theme here. The soloist starts the next line, with the upper voices now accompanying with their melismatic rendition of ‘God is with us’.
The soloist becomes more artistically free on their line with phrases such as ‘Prince of Peace’ being highly melismatic. The choir unite for the last two lines of the text, mirroring the movement from the opening proclamation. Each time they repeat the line they become quieter.
Out of nowhere the organ plays an intrusive interlude after the choir unite to sing ‘Christ is Born’. The choir enter once more with ‘Christ is Born’, which the organ responds to once more with another celebratory chord. The choir builds for the final proclamation of the last line with them lingering on the word ‘on’ before reaching to the top of their ranges for ‘born’. The organ joins in on the last word and closes the anthem with another rich chord.
With text adapted from the Orthodox, John Tavener’s God is With Us: A Christmas Proclamation is often performed as part of a Christmas Eve service. The joyous celebration at the end is seen through Tavener’s use of the organ and voice as they unite for the final proclamation.
Ⓒ Alex Burns