The Sunday Prom: John Tavener Premiere BBC Proms


The Sunday Prom: John Tavener Premiere

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Sir John Tavener, who died last year,

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was a composer with a unique musical voice,

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whose works touched the hearts of millions.

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His sacred choral music, inspired by his deep Orthodox faith,

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has been the soundtrack to some of this nation's most moving events.

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Two of his works have been especially chosen to mark

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the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I,

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in this special late-night prom given on the 4th of August

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and timed to coincide exactly with the moment war was declared.

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Just before he died, he completed his Requiem Fragments,

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commissioned by the BBC and dedicated to the Tallis Scholars,

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the choir who will give the world premiere later in the concert.

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They are conducted by Sir John's friend, Peter Phillips,

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who describes the Requiem Fragments as a "miraculous masterpiece".

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First, though, the concert begins with his radiant choral work,

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Ikon Of Light.

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It's a large-scale work written in 1984,

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the first piece Sir John Tavener wrote for the Tallis Scholars

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after hearing them sing Renaissance polyphony.

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It sets the extraordinary mystic prayer

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to the Holy Spirit by the Orthodox poet, St Symeon the New Theologian.

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It opens with the simple repetition of one word -

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"fos" - light - shining with the brightness of a gilded icon.

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When I look at an icon of the mother of God, say, or an icon of Christ,

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it moves me to bend my whole body in prostration before it.

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I love the icon of the tenderly kissing virgin.

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She is pointing and she always has to point to her son,

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but the child is not a sort of plump Renaissance baby.

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The child is stylised.

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There is a look of wisdom in his face which you wouldn't see

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on a straightforward painting of an infant.

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I think I want to try and make a music,

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if it's possible, that is a kind of sounding icon.

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MUSIC "Ikon Of Light" by John Tavener

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APPLAUSE

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Sir John Tavener's Ikon Of Light.

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"It must unfold as a ritual in musical terms," he said,

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"attempting to express the inexpressible."

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The Tallis Scholars

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and members of the Heath Quartet were conducted by Peter Phillips.

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Sir John Tavener was 69 when he died last year.

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He had struggled all his life with health problems.

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A stroke at the age of 35 changed totally his perspective on the world

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and strengthened his faith, firmly rooted in the Greek Orthodox Church.

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He started his musical career

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as an avant-garde radical in the 1960s

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and was signed to the Beatles' Apple record label.

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Then he found a higher calling,

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writing almost exclusively sacred works.

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He was a complex character

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whose music has the power to speak to everyone, as we found out

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when we went to the home of tonight's conductor, Peter Phillips,

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who was a great friend of Sir John Tavener.

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He was the sort of man who, because of his height, really,

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and his very strange colour...

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He liked to lie in the sun or a substitute for the sun

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and he had gone a sort of orange colour and he had got this

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fantastic hair and a cross... big cross here on his chest.

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He was a very impressive man.

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I liked him a lot right from the start.

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I always found John to be quite humble,

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in the sense that he would always take suggestion and be

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interested in what I would have to say or anyone would have to say.

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He has been reported as being quite an arrogant man

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but I never really saw that.

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When he was driving his Rolls-Royce at 150mph down the motorway,

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I suppose that's a kind of arrogance,

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to have one at all, but I always... I never was put off by this.

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I found it very attractive.

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In the end, John wrote very intuitively,

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very instinctively, right there.

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He was capable of this very direct means of expression.

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He wrote for us some quite complicated...

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mathematically complicated pieces.

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But even those, I think, don't put people off.

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I think there's a style there which draws you in and it's to do with

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this instinctive feeling he's got

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for the atmosphere of a church service.

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And I used to go to the services with him which lasted all night,

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if necessary.

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But you get caught up in it.

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It's a kind of almost druggy situation, you know.

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You don't want it to stop.

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And he was very much caught up in it like that.

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When he came to write music, out it came.

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I went to stay with John one night about two years ago now,

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as I was passing by.

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And he asked me to take with me a score of a very complicated canon,

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mathematical construct by Josquin des Prez,

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a leading Renaissance composer.

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He'd got the recording and he could hear how complicated it was

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but he wanted to see it on paper.

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So I took this with me and we listened to it.

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He had this compulsive way of listening to things.

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It just went round and round and round.

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We spent all day just listening to this canon.

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I noticed that by him on the sofa

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was a manuscript that he was writing out in pencil.

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He found it very hard work -

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he was in great pain, actually, at this point - to write.

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But he was working on it. And he said, "I'm writing a requiem."

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He didn't say it was for us at that point.

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And I don't think he had written the last movement of it,

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which has a very complicated canon in it.

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Some weeks later, it was made clear that this was for us - for me

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and for the Tallis Scholars.

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And very interestingly, 30 years later,

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it seems to be related to the Ikon of Light and I don't know

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whether he was doing this on purpose or not. He never said.

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I do have a strong sense of responsibility in giving this

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first performance of what I think is a great work by a composer

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who happened to be a friend of mine and I will...

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I know that I am going to be trying to find him again in the notes.

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I'm sure I will but, er...

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such an overwhelming moment to perform

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a big piece like this in the Albert Hall. We'll see.

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BASSES: # Om... #

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OTHER VOICES JOIN IN

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# Requiem aeternam... #

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# Om... #

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SOLO SOPRANO SINGS

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OTHER VOICES JOIN IN

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SOLO SOPRANO SINGS

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SOLO SOPRANO SINGS

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BASSES: # Om... #

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APPLAUSE

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The world premiere of one of Sir John Tavener's final works -

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his Requiem Fragments.

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Performed by the Tallis Scholars...

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..with the Heath Quartet,

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soloist Carolyn Sampson...

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..the trombone players Roger Harvey and Barry Clements.

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And conducted by Sir John's great friend, Peter Phillips.

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A magical, ethereal experience here in the Albert Hall.

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100 years ago tonight, on the 4th of August 1914, at 11pm,

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midnight Berlin time, Great Britain entered the First World War.

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This late-night Prom with the world's premiere

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of one of John Taverner's last works, Requiem Fragments,

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therefore has an added poignancy.

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This Prom is also part of Lights Out, organised by 14-18 Now,

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a UK-wide event which invites everyone to turn out

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their lights from 10:00-11:00 PM this evening,

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leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

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So may I ask the Prommers here in the Royal Albert Hall

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to light the candles they have been given.

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Samuel West is now going to read a poem by Wilfred Owen

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and then I will conduct the Tallis Scholars in a performance

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of The Lamb, by John Tavener.

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Anthem For Doomed Youth.

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What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

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Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

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Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

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Can patter out their hasty orisons.

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No mockeries now for them;

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no prayers nor bells;

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Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs

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The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

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And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

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What candles may be held to speed them all?

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Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes

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Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

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The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

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Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

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And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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# Little Lamb, who made thee?

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# Dost thou know who made thee?

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# Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

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# By the stream and o'er the mead

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# Gave thee clothing of delight

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# Softest clothing, woolly bright

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# Gave thee such a tender voice

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# Making all the vales rejoice?

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# Little Lamb

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# Who made thee?

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# Dost thou know

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# Who made thee?

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# Little Lamb, I'll tell thee

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# Little Lamb, I'll tell thee

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# He is called by thy name

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# For he calls himself a Lamb

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# He is meek, and he is mild

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# He became a little child

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# I, a child, and thou a lamb

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# We are called by his name

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# Little Lamb, God bless thee!

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# Little Lamb

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# God bless thee! #

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On the eve of the First World War, 100 years ago,

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the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey,

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spoke these words which have echoed down the decades.

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"The lamps are going out all over Europe.

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"We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

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Sir John Tavener, who died in 2013, was one of the country's defining musical voices. His sacred choral music, inspired by his deep Orthodox faith, touches the hearts of millions and has been the soundtrack to some of this nation's most moving events.

Just before he died he completed his Requiem Fragments, commissioned by the BBC for this Prom. The Tallis Scholars are conducted by Sir John's great friend Peter Phillips, who describes the work as a miraculous masterpiece. The concert begins with his radiant choral work Ikon of Light.

Presented by Katie Derham.


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