About this work
Much of John Tavener's music is an exploration of his devout faith, and many of his works come across as sonic ruminations on the mysteries of God, and on the composer's own devotion to Russian Orthodoxy. In such works, form and content aspire to a kind of ineffable nonlinearity, a musical state in which time is suspended and musical objects are seen in multiple axes of chronology. On the other hand, a few of Tavener's works are not spiritual explorations, but rather spiritual affirmations. There are no mysteries here; music and text are resolute articles of faith and witnesses of belief. It is into this latter category that God is With Us falls.
The work was composed in 1987, in fulfillment of a commission from Jonathan Louth and the Winchester Cathedral, and in tribute to Martin Neary, who that same year retired after several years at the helm of the cathedral's choir. Neary conducted the Winchester Choir in the premiere of the work on December 22, 1987.
An adaptation of the text from the Orthodox service of the Great Compline, Tavener describes God is With Us as "A Christmas Proclamation." Its eponymous first line sets a chant-like melody against a subterranean drone; this breaks in to the exclamatory second line, "Here ye people, even to the uttermost ends of the Earth," which is set with lush parallel thirds and sixths covering a spacious pitch range across the choir. This moving passage is repeated three times with trinitarian symbolism, after which a baritone sings an unaccompanied solo. Again, the contour of the line is suggestive of eastern plainsong, with gracefully lilting ornaments and poignant turns. The end of the solo begins the famous messianic text from the Old Testament's Book of Isaiah, chapter 9 verse 6: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace." This is underscored with additional exclamations of "God is with us!"
A particularly striking moment occurs near the end of the piece, when the organ interrupts the heretofore a cappella texture with a bold, harmonically startling chord; the previously stable tonality is suddenly sent on an upward trajectory. This finally apexes with the last line of the text, which identifies Christ as the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah.