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RNS Presents: John Tavener's Supernatural Songs - Inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels

Follow the journey of the Lindisfarne Gospels in this special concert film with Royal Northern Sinfonia, transporting you through the stunning North East landscape and into the iconic illustrated pages of the Gospels.

Earlier this year we presented a series of concerts exploring ‘Music and Spirituality’, inspired by the North East-wide celebrations marking the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the region in a major exhibition at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery. At the centre of this programme was a special performance of the rarely-heard work, John Tavener’s Supernatural Songs. Dame Sarah Connolly, a renowned champion of Tavener’s music, was our soloist, alongside Royal Northern Sinfonia, conducted by James Weeks.

To accompany the performance, we commissioned a brand-new film work by Newcastle-based studio, NOVAK, taking inspiration from the Lindisfarne Gospels and Tavener’s deeply spiritual and meditative music.

The film follows the journey of the Lindisfarne Gospels across the North East from their creation to their final resting place. Each location is paired with a musical movement, creating a visually distinct feel to each section and a direct correlation to key moments in the history of the Gospels.

Water plays a pivotal role in the story of the Gospels, and scenes of the North East coastline bookend the performance. Water brought the monks from Ireland who established the first monastery on Lindisfarne, which provided the bedrock for the creation of the Gospels. Lindisfarne itself is strongly defined by the fact that it is a tidal island, cut off from the mainland twice daily by water. And it was the water that brought the Vikings, who caused the monks to flee the island, taking with them the Gospels and the remains of St Cuthbert.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are renowned for their exceptional designs and craftsmanship, much of which is inspired by shapes and patterns found within the natural environment. As a reflection of this, using aerial photography, a sweeping bird’s eye view reveals the varied textures and beautiful abstractions seen in the landscape, alongside the built environment of these locations. As the music swells, the landscape washes away to reveal the intricate patterns and designs of the iconic illustrated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, as if as much a part of our region’s landscape, as they are its history.

‘Supernatural Songs’ is available to watch until February 2023. 

About Supernatural Songs

Words by John Tavener

“Yeats has been called ‘the most learned of Poets.’ He was learned in the profoundest sense, in the religious sense. Deeply influenced by Hinduism all his life, his late poems are steeped in the Upanishad, and in those imaginary people, created out of the deepest instinct of man to be his measure and his norm. When I listened they seemed always to speak of one thing only: they, their love, every incident of their lives were shaped in the supernatural.’ Unlike T.S. Elliot, who was to identify himself with the European religion, Christianity, W.B. Yeats identified himself with that ‘Oriental’ philosophy the Vedantic tradition, that to the Unity of Being, which the Upanishad have named Self. The supernatural Songs move from a line in Latin about Divine Love, through human love, through Greek myth, into a kind of Hindu ecstasy of being. It then leads into the final two songs, which concern themselves with death, again seen through that fountainhead of spiritual knowledge that it is the heart of Vedic metaphysics.

Yeats seemed to scan the entire horizon of human experience of the mystery within whose compel ‘we live and move, and have our being.’ He is for me the supreme artist of the twentieth century.

Supernatural Songs was written for mezzo-soprano, strings, pow-wow Drum, and Hindu Temple Gong. The use of these ‘exotic’ instruments helps to colour the vast horizon of the poetry of this universal poet. The pow-wow drum carries with its vibrations and sound an awesome mystical, and primordial world of which Yeats was a consummate master. The Hindu Temple Gong, is used for its sound but also because of the Unpanishad nature of the late poems of Yeats.

There is, I hope a quality of both ecstasy, and what Yeats termed his ‘tragic gaiety’ in the music. Where there is love in the music, it is always accompanied by an awesome manifestation, never more so than in the very strange ‘A Nativity’ where Yeats ponders ‘Why is the woman terror struck’ and ‘is there money in that look?’ The reference to the Anti-Christ is suddenly prevalent, as is Nirvana and reunion with ‘Brahman’ in the last songs.

Supernatural Songs represent for me in miniature, a change of metaphysical direction which occurred during the final part of ‘The Veil of Temple’. Not so much as a move away from Christianity, as a realisation the same essential Truths lies hidden beneath the forms of all great traditions. This is an attitude that I share with Yeats, and he is the artist to whom I feel closest in this bewildering age, which in Hindu terms, forms the latter part of that dark age, the Kali Yuga.”


Supernatural Songs John Tavener

James Weeks conductor
Dame Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano
Royal Northern Sinfonia

Performed live at Sage Gateshead on Friday 23 September 2022

Concert Film Director Mary Crothers
Sound Mix Richard Halling
Stream provided by 8 Live

Direction, Editing and Event Playback NOVAK
Drone Operator James Winnifrith