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Wrong Notes — Or Not — in Tavener’s Annunciation

Alaska Chamber Singers

If you go to the Alaska Chamber Singers’ holiday concert this Friday or Saturday, don’t be dismayed if you hear some very wrong-sounding notes in John Tavener’s Annunciation. If it sounds wrong, it’s probably right. Really — I’m not bluffing.

The Chamber Singers’ program includes several toothsome Christmas chestnuts (In Dulci Jubilo, the obligatory Silent Night), but the crux of the program are the more obscure compositions that truly stretch the palette. Among these is John Tavener’s Annunciation, written in 1992, which depicts the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of her conception of Christ — and her subsequent “humility, terror, and total acceptance,” as Tavener writes in his foreword.

Terror is the key word here; Tavener’s Gabriel sounds terrifying. While a quartet of singers represents Mary, the main choir represents the angel, alternating between repetitions of “Hail!” and the melodic lines:
Hail, thou art highly favored.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women.

This is where you’ll hear those wrong-sounding notes; they’re especially exposed when the tenors and basses sing alone. While most of the voices sing the melody or the tonal drone behind it, two baritones simultaneously sing a parallel melodic line, one step up in the scale. The result is beyond dissonant — it’s as if the angel’s vibrating voice is literally multi-dimensional, with one voice in some alternate universe barely conceivable by humans.

This is not the lilting, mellifluous angel familiarly depicted in, say, the carols Gabriel’s Message or Angelus Ad Virginem. This is more like the angel that terrifies Daniel of the Old Testament so that he “falls prostrate.” (Remember that story? I had to look up prostrate in the dictionary. Apparently, to fall prostrate means to fall on one’s face. I was confusing it with prostate.)

By the way, Tavener’s Gabriel is terrifying not only for the listener. That the funky baritone line is incredibly hard to sing against the overwhelmingly persuasive melody.

Annunciation is not the only difficult piece on the Chamber Singers’ program. The group will perform the hunky Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque (made famous by his YouTube Virtual Choir), which is not difficult to sing but is difficult to sing really well. “Lux Aurumque is so naked,” said the Chamber Singers’ director, David Hagen, at the group’s rehearsal earlier this week. One foul vowel could ruin the entire effect — though the Chamber Singers’ sound is almost always perfect for Whitacre.

Also listen for two pieces on the program with rhythmically unusual meters of 5 beats per measure. Trond Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella includes a 5/4 allegro (the B section, if you will, of the piece’s ABAC structure). Then Libby Larsen’s Natus Est Emmanuel cavorts gleefully between 5/8, 6/8, 4/4, and 8/8 before settling into 6/8. Gleeful is appropriate here; Larsen’s subtitle is “A Glee of Angels at the Birth,” and Larsen’s glee of angels is too dulcet to be terrifying. Unless you’re trying to sing it — a few of those chords are hard enough to make you fall prostrate.


The Alaska Chamber Singers perform on Friday, December 9 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage and Saturday, December 10 at Saint Andrew Church in Eagle River. Both performances begin at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or from CenterTix.


  1. Carolyn Gordon says:

    Thanks Lorelei! That about sums it up in a nutshell! Most of these pieces we’ve performed before and I’m most thankful for that in pulling this performance together, but audiences of the past just love the dissonant stuff! As singers, we scratch our heads and think “really?”, ever doubtful that these pieces would be appealing to listeners. But time and time again, we’ve gotten great feedback on them. I pray we perform them well this weekend for everyone’s enjoyment, singers and listeners alike! Let’s “Deck the Halls” Alaska Chamber Singers!!!!

  2. Marion Hale says:

    Great article. Sounds like the Alaska Chamber singers would be interesting to hear perform.

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