Tavener on Palintropos

Palintropos' was written on the Greek island of Patmos. While observing the extraordinary changes of colour in the course of a day, I began to form a sound-world of pitches, intervals and instrumentation. The title literally means 'a turning-back structure' and the idea of turning back is essential to the piece. The four virtually continuous and contrasted sections are divided by musical columns which are characterised by pulsating brasses and tam-tam, with widely spaced strings.

Much use is made of the sustaining pedal on the piano and I connect the 'resonances' with the changing colours of the Greek island. Sometimes the piano merely decorates, sometimes it anticipates, but never does it take over completely in a 'concerto' sense.

The last section is the apotheosis of the work, and the piano is at its most active, working independently of the brass chorale-like chords, and the pulsing strings. The music reaches a climax then subsides and finishes as it began on a single held C on the double-basses, a pivotal note of the whole work.   John Tavener

"The genesis of Palintropos was not entirely abstract. It was conceived on the island of Patmos in Greece and it came to me pretty much in one day when I was sitting on top of Patmos where St John received the Divine Revelation. If you watch changing colours on Patmos it’s one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have, watching them from morning to evening – it’s quite staggering! I consider it to be closest thing I've composed to a tone-poem and my only impressionistic serial piece" 

Extract from a previously unpublished interview between John Tavener and Michael Stewart in 1983

John Tavener - Pencil drawing by Michael Stewart 1978

Pencil drawing of John Tavener by Michael Stewart (1978)

Opening page of Palintropos. Original manuscript

Carl Jung on palintropos and enantiodromia

Michael Stewart had many conversations with John Tavener about Palintropos. What essentially interested Tavener when choosing the title was the idea of something 'turning back on itself' one could interpret this as the progress of the sun over sea during a single day and the dramatically changing colours. Tavener, was very interested in the writings of Carl Jung and in his discussions with Michael Stewart spoke about Jung's ideas on enantiodromia. Carl Jung defines enantiodromia as:

"the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counterposition is built up which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control."

The same thing can be found in nature where any extreme is ultimately opposed by a system of order in order to restore balance. In Palintropos this can be evidenced by the violently contrasting sections (columns of sound) that alternate between the 'reflective and the dynamic'.  In the principles of traditional Chinese religion – as in Taoism and yin-yang - the central idea of the I Ching is that yang becomes yin when they have reached their extreme, and vice versa.

This concept is implied also in Heraclitus's writings. Heraclitus says

"cold things warm, warm things cool, wet things dry and parched things get wet."

Harmony is reflexive (παλίντροπος palintropos) or in

"in reflexive tension ... like the bow and the lyre".

The dynamic motion back and forth between the two - especially by opposition and conflict.

Palintropos is scored for solo piano, brass, percussion, harp, celesta and strings. It was given its first performance on Thursday 1st March 1979 in Birmingham Town Hall, with Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich (piano) and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster. Its is dedicated to the pianist Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich and the island of Patmos in Greece,