Richard Steinitz:  “Song for Athene is another elegiac tribute, not, as one might suppose, to the mythological goddess Athene, but to a young family friend, Athene Hariades, half Greek, a talented actress who was tragically killed in a cycling accident. “Her beauty,” write Tavener, “both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church.” Tavener had heard Athene reading Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey and, rather as in the case of the Little Requiem, conceived the piece after her funeral, lighting on the effective ideas, so touchingly realized, of combining words from the Orthodox liturgy with lines from Hamlet. Between each is a monodic “Alleluia”, and, following the example of traditional Byzantine music, the whole piece unfolds over a continuous “ison” or drone. Song for Athene perfectly exemplifies that inner serenity, purity and radiance which gives Tavener’s music its consolatory attraction in troubled times. ”  Song for Athene was cast heavily into the spotlight on September 6th, 1997. Millions of people, the world over, would hear this piece for the first time as the flag-draped casket of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was carried out of Westminster Abbey, destined to its final resting place at Althorp, north of London.   (Athene:  Goddess of Wisdom)


From Wikipedia:

“Song for Athene”, which has a performance time of about four minutes,[4] is an elegy consisting of the Hebrew word alleluia (“let us praise the LORD”) sung monophonically six times as an introduction to texts excerpted and modified from the funeral service of the Eastern Orthodox Church and from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (probably 1599–1601).[4]  The music reaches a climax after the sixth intonation of alleluia with the lines “Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.” Alleluia is then sung a seventh time as a coda. Following the example of traditional Byzantine music, a continuous ison[7] or drone underlies the work.[4]

The lyrics were written in 1993 by Mother Thekla (born 18 July 1918), an Orthodox nun who co-founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby, North Yorkshire, and whom Tavener called his “spiritual mother”. Tavener had come away from the funeral of Athene Hariades with the music of Song for Athene fully formed in his mind. He called Mother Thekla the same day, and said to her: “I want words.”  The next day’s post brought, from Thekla, the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:  “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”, together with verses from the Orthodox funeral service.[6]  

From her Obituary

Mother Thekla was born Marina Sharf in 1918 at Kislovodsk in the Caucasus. The family was of Jewish descent, her mother having converted to Christianity. (After the Second World War her brother Andrew returned to his Jewish roots; an expert on Byzantine Jewry, he became a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.)  Marina was born at a time of turmoil caused by the Russian Revolution. Crossfire in the streets prevented her parents taking her to church, so she was baptized in a flower vase, an episode that Mother Thekla liked to relate.  Shortly afterwards they moved to England and she grew up at Richmond, Surrey, before moving to Chelsea.  Educated at City of London Girls’ School, she went up to Girton College, Cambridge, to read English, graduating in 1940.

The following year she joined the WAAF and spent the war working for British Intelligence, partly in India, being mentioned in despatches in 1943, although she would never be drawn on this episode in her life.

Mother Maria’s doctoral thesis had been on the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, and a monograph of hers on Cudworth was an early pamphlet in the library. Other works of Mother Maria’s followed, and then works by Mother Thekla on Shakespeare (Hamlet: The Noble Mind), on Keats (John Keats: The Disinterested Heart) and on George Herbert, as well as translations of liturgical texts, and the Psalms, translated from Hebrew by Mother Maria, which were used by the nuns in their worship. The sisters were seeking what one might call an acculturation of Orthodoxy within English culture.

Mother Thekla, who died on August 7, 2011 aged 93, was the last surviving nun to have occupied the enclosed Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption in North Yorkshire, but became better known to the wider world as the spiritual muse of the composer Sir John Tavener.

Mother Thekla with Tavener (left)

Mother Thekla with Sir John Tavener

A beautiful, Russian-born Cambridge graduate who co-founded the monastery near Whitby and latterly lived there in seclusion as the abbess, she furnished the words for some of Tavener’s most important religious works, and was the spiritual driving force behind one of his most popular pieces, The Protecting Veil (1987).

Although it was retitled for the occasion, Song For Athene went on to become the music played when the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, was borne out of Westminster Abbey, in August 1997.

Thekla exerted a remarkable influence on Tavener, a Presbyterian who had flirted with Roman Catholicism before converting to the Orthodox Church in 1977.  He contacted her in 1984 after reading a religious book she had written. 

Thekla was brought up in England and worked as an actress and schoolmistress before taking her vows. Her relationship with Tavener was almost telepathic: she would send him odd words — “crucify” or “apple”, for example — which he would instinctively understand and interpret. He once described her as “the most remarkable woman I have ever met in my life”.

Yet in many ways the pair were complete opposites. It was Thekla, ever practical, who drilled the unworldly Tavener in the dynamics of a creative partnership. She never lost her volatile , thespian streak, and insisted on calling him “darling”. For all her devoutness, Tavener considered her “a pretty wild character, pretty formidable; she has a ferocious temper”.

He could not imagine working with another librettist: “It’s one of those very special relationships in life, which will not ever happen again.” When Tavener ventured to suggest some kind of professional collaboration, Thekla replied, typically: “Yes, darling, but behind the scenes.”

It was Thekla’s short book The Life Of St Mary Of Egypt (1974), about the famous prostitute-saint, that caught the attention of John Tavener and became the basis of his second opera, Mary Of Egypt (1992) and choral works including The Apocalypse (1993) and Fall And Resurrection (1999), which was dedicated to his friend the Prince of Wales.  In the meantime she had counselled Tavener following the death of his mother in 1985, after which he feared he would never write music again.

It was while she was at Normanby that Mother Thekla became an inspiration for Tavener.  She wrote the texts for Tavener’s visionary We Shall See Him As He Is (1993), drawing on the First Epistle of John, and for Let Us Begin Again (1995), which is mimed as well as sung.  They were joint authors of a volume, Ikons. Meditations in Words and Music (1994)

She suggested the words for what became the Song to Athene, and wrote the texts for his opera, Mary of Egypt, and many of his choral works. She was the inspiration for one of his most popular works, The Protecting Veil. The fame she acquired from her association with Tavener led to two works of hers being published: The Dark Glass (1996) and Eternity Now (1997).

For Total Eclipse (2000), in which Tavener pitted an orchestra of baroque instruments against the soaring soprano saxophone of John Harle, Thekla compiled words from the gospels for soloists and choir which described St Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

Mother Thekla was the dedicatee of John Tavener’s memoir The Music Of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (1999). Not only had she helped him spiritually, Tavener said, she had also “helped me put my music and my life together”.

With another nun, Mother Maria, Mother Thekla founded the first Orthodox order in England, moving from a monastery they had founded in 1966 at Filgrave, Buckinghamshire, to a dilapidated farmhouse at Higher Normanby, outside Whitby, in 1971. It was the bleakest spot they could find, on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors.

The nuns would meet only at lunchtimes, for a frugal meal of home-grown vegetables and rice. At the hesychasterion (the hermitage or prayer-house) Thekla followed the simple routine of the 7th-century saint Hilda, rising at 4am, swathing herself in a loose black “shroud” that served as a habit and praying every three hours six times a day.

The farmhouse was divided into simply furnished “cells” in which the nuns slept and meditated; a former cowshed became their chapel . As well as the fixed routines of their daily offices and obligations, they translated religious liturgies, painted icons to decorate the chapel walls and cultivated the land around the farmhouse.

Tourists were not encouraged. A sign at the entrance warned: “Monastery enclosure, do not enter.” Originally there were five nuns at Higher Normanby, but Mothers Maria, Catherine and two others eventually died. Thekla remained there alone until 1994, hoping that a younger, American-born, sister nun, Mother Hilda, would take over. Ultimately, this was not a success.

“It is the monotony of our lives which frees the spirit; all the imminent things drop away,” Mother Thekla told a visiting journalist in 2002. “It’s quite painful being faced with your real self without the trimmings. There’s time here to pray for the world. That’s our work: it’s not something we do on our Sunday off.”

Some years ago Hilda unceremoniously delivered Mother Thekla to the infirmary at the Anglican Abbey of St Hilda in Whitby.  Hilda did take over the monastery, but sold it, and died in Whitby in 2010.

Modern Anglican Abbey of St. Hilda, very different from the more rustic and humble Monastery of the Assumption in North Yorkshire nearby and distinctly different from the ancient Abbey of Whitby which is currently in ruins

Much to her distress, Mother Thekla left no surviving colleague. At her funeral at the Abbey of St Hilda a choir will sing a newly-written piece by Tavener, They are all Gone into the World of Light, as well as Song for Athene.

From Wikipedia:

Mother Thekla, Orthodox nun, was born on July 18, 1918.  She was buried at Whitby on August 16.

Lyrics Original texts Source
Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. – Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! Hamlet, Act V Scene ii,[8] c.f. In paradisum
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom. O thou who reignest over life and death, in the courts of thy Saints grant rest unto him [her] whom thou hast removed from temporal things. And remember me also, when thou comest into thy kingdom. Orthodox funeral service,[9] Luke 23:42
Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid, who has fallen asleep. Where the choirs of the Saints, O Lord, and of the Just, shine like the stars of heaven, give rest to thy servant who hath fallen asleep, regarding not all his [her] transgressions. Orthodox funeral service
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of Paradise. The Choir of the Saints have found the Fountain of Life and the Door of Paradise. May I also find the right way, through repentance. I am a lost sheep. Call me, O Saviour, and save me. Orthodox funeral service
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream. Guildenstern: Which dreams, indeed, are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream. Hamlet: A dream itself is but a shadow. Hamlet, Act II scene ii
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia. Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Thou only art immortal, who hast created and fashioned man. For out of the earth were we mortals made, and unto the earth shall we return again, as thou didst command when thou madest me, saying unto me: For earth thou art, and unto the earth shalt thou return. Whither, also, all we mortals wend our way, making of our funeral dirge the song: Alleluia…. Ye who have trod the narrow way most sad; all ye who, in life, have taken upon you the Cross as a yoke, and have followed Me through faith, draw near: Enjoy ye the honours and the crowns which I have prepared for you. Orthodox funeral service

  1. Nigel Farndale (29 July 2004), “A visionary visited by angels”The Daily Telegraph.
  2. John Tavener: Song For Athene (Alleluia. May Flights Of Angels Sing Thee To Thy Rest), Musicroom, retrieved 15 March 2008.
  3. Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales: Order of service at Westminster Abbey, Saturday, 6 September 1997, 11.00 a.m., British Monarchy, 6 September 1997, p. 3, retrieved 16 March 2008.
  4. Page 7 of Tavener’s The Beautiful Names, the programme of a concert by theBBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus and Trinity College of MusicChamber Choir at the Birmingham Town Hall on 15 March 2008.
  5. John Tavener (1997), Song for Athene: (Alleluia, may Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest): For Unaccompanied Choir, SATB [music score; cat. no. CH60991], London: Chester Music, ISBN 0-7119-4389-3.
  6. “Mother Thekla: Orthodox nun who co-founded a monastery and became the spiritual muse of Sir John Tavener [obituary]”, The Daily Telegraph, 13 August 2011: 29.
  7. Psaltic chant, Monastère orthodoxe de Cantauque (Orthodox Monastery of the Theotokos and Saint Martin), retrieved 17 March 2008.
  8.  William Shakespeare; Dianne Bean, ed. (November 1998), Hamlet, Prince of Denmark [Etext #1524] (Collins ed.), Project Gutenberg.
  9. Isabel Florence Hapgood, comp. (1922), “The Order for the Burial of the Dead (Laymen)”, Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church (Rev. ed.), New York, N.Y.: Association Press (reproduced on the Orthodox Christian Information Center website), pp. 368–393.
  10. The information was obtained from Retrieved on 21 March 2008.
  11. Claire Rogers (10 October 2007), Nicola Benedetti: Vaughan-Williams & Tavener review, BBC Music, retrieved 20 August 2009.