About this work
John Tavener's Love Bade Me Welcome, a short work scored for a cappella chorus, was composed for the enthronement of the Winchester Cathedral's new bishop, the Right Reverend Colin James, in the summer of 1985. Martin Neary, the director of the Winchester Cathedral Choir (and later dedicatee of Tavener's Christmas Proclamation, God is With Us), commissioned the work, which was premiered by the choir at the enthronement ceremonies on June 28 of that year.
Tavener took his text from a poem by the seventeenth-century parish priest George Herbert; it explores the speaker's feelings of unworthiness and uncleanliness, and the power of love which bids the imperfect worshipper to partake of God's grace at the altar of the church:
Love bade my welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guiltie of dust and sinne. But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, sweetly questioning, If I lack'd any thing.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame? My deare, then I will serve. You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.
Tavener's ear for text expression is demonstrated in the poignant musical nuances that accompany Herbert's text. The first verse begins with a drone in the men's voices that underscores a simple, unison chant-like melody in the sopranos and altos. As the verse progresses, the texture expands and becomes thicker. The unison melody with drone texture soon shifts to two-part women's harmony moving mostly in lush parallel thirds. These in turn become three parallel voices, which are finally joined by the full ensemble proceeding in mixed motion to a dramatic plateau at the end of the first verse. The speaker's feelings of guilt and unworthiness find musical voice in an unexpected melodic twist on the phrase "my soul drew back," and a corresponding harmonic surprise at "observing me grow slack." The overwhelming power of grace finds expression in the dramatic textural crescendo that occurs across the verse.
The second verse takes on a shape similar to that of the first. Here, the bass drone supports a chant-like melody sung by the upper men's voices; this likewise expands to two, then three parallel voices. The full ensemble enters with some trepidation at "Love took my hand," but once again swells to a dramatic climax at "Who made the eyes but I." The third verse follows a similar path, employing men's and women's voices in parallel octaves, then thirds, then triads, before breaking into full harmony.
There is an interesting footnote to this piece, one that relates to the sentiments of the poem with precious irony. According to biographer Geoffrey Haydon, after the staid ceremony of the enthronement the composer joined several associates for dinner. Over the course of the meal the composer became extremely inebriated and melancholy. He shocked everyone by raising a toast to Death, then staggered back to the Cathedral and walked up the nave towards the organ loft singing music from the Russian Orthodox funeral liturgy. As his worried friends looked on, he precariously ascended the ladder to the loft, opened the stops, and improvised a set of drunken variations on "I Could Have Danced All Night."