Although I mainly write about the virtual world in this blog, I just want to take a real-world moment to note, with deep sadness, the death of the great composer John Tavener, who was an enormous inspiration to me, both musically and spiritually. I had the privilege of meeting him twice, once when reviewing his Grammy-winning composition Lamentations and Praises, and again when reviewing his epic 7-hour all-night vigil Veil of the Temple.
Tavener lived much of his life close to death due to a serious heart condition, knowing that the end could come any moment. The effect on his music was perhaps surprising; it has a delicate radiance and sense of timelessness, with one foot in this world, and one foot in the next. Listen as Tavener’s music was sung as Princess Diana’s coffin was borne from Westminster Abbey — it was a transcendent moment, beginning in luminous simplicity, soaring ecstatically into a magnificent ray of sunlight as the procession reached the west door. The very simplicity of it allowed millions to weep, pouring their grief and joy into the sound.
Sorrow and joy. It is fitting that I feel both things as I think back on what John Tavener has meant to me. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could feel just one thing at a time. But sorrow and joy don’t happen one after the other. They seem to happen all at the same time. It’s like being in the midst of an oppressively dark, gloomy day, and suddenly one brilliant shaft of light comes beaming through the clouds. It’s still gloomy; the sunbeam does not dissipate the overcast skies. But it gleams there in the sky, testifying that there is, indeed, sunshine out there, somewhere, hidden behind the dark clouds.
When speaking of joy and sorrow, it is easy to revert to the old metaphor of darkness and light. Black and white. I have been accused, before, of believing in the darkness more than I believe in the light. Of being a pessimist, living with the expectation that the worst will happen. And therefore, somehow, causing it, as if I created the darkness.
I do not really think that is true, any more than I could, somehow, by force of will, have made yesterday’s rain clouds dissipate and turn it into a sunny day. We do not get to have that much control over the world. But that is beside the point.
Which is the truth, darkness or light? If I believe in the dark, does that mean I do not believe in the light? Is it that black and white?
People often speak about things being “black and white,” by which they actually mean something is either black or white. Clearly one thing, or the other. Well, if I have learned anything in this life, it is that almost nothing is clearly black or white. They are not even gray. Almost everything is both black and white at the same time. People, for example, are rarely purely good or purely bad, and also not a neutral-in-the-middle gray; we are all a messy mixture of both good and bad, simultaneously.
Thus it is with life. Almost every moment contains both darkness and light. Distinct, and separate, and coexisting. The via media, the middle road, is not some flat compromise of gray, but a lively tension resulting from the pull of two opposites.
John Tavener, who understood this, portrayed it in music, in his composition Ikon of Light. (Listen to it.) A string trio is the darkness, the soul lost and yearning. This is suddenly interrupted by a choir’s brief, brilliant cry of “Phos” (“Light”). This flash of light is not triumphant; even in its brilliance it is ambivalent. Tavener referred to the expression of “light” as the “joy-sorrow chord.” One chord that contains both joy and sorrow, filled with heartbreaking ecstasy.
That is more how I see it. Every moment contains joy and sorrow, heartbreak and ecstasy, sorrows and songs, darkness and light. Black and white, and every other color besides.
It makes no sense to me to be asked to believe in only one or the other. What seems more likely is that in certain moments, one aspect may be hidden. Yesterday, outside my window, it was a dark, gloomy day. The sun was nowhere to be seen. But even as I sat there in gloom, it was a sunny day. Not right here, perhaps. But if I were to fly high enough, above the clouds, it would have been sunny. Just because I cannot see the sun, right now, does not mean that it is not shining.
The belief that the sun is shining does not make the clouds go away. The presence of the clouds is not something I can control. They are there whether I want them or not. The challenge is to accept that there is sunlight, even though I cannot see it.
The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It is not easy. Sometimes I need reminding that there is always, in every moment, both black and white, both sorrows and songs, both darkness and light. The music of John Tavener fills my heart with gratitude like a brilliant ray of light momentarily breaking through the clouds, attesting that there is sunshine out there, somewhere, unseen beyond the dark clouds.
One thought on “The Joy-Sorrow Chord”
Beautifully and movingly written. I found your site while searching for information on John Tavener’s marvellous ‘Song for Athene’ (on a compilation called The Classic 100 Swoon) and I shall refer to this page often, I think.