Tavener's own words refer to this as "a shorter, simple and rather primitive piece." It comes on the heels of two large scale works, an oratorio, Resurrection, and an opera, Mary of Egypt. The thief of the title refers to the one being crucified along with Jesus on Golgotha who asked, " remember me when you come into your kingdom," and is told "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." From his devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Tavener draws his concept of this thief being a type of holy fool, "blindly dancing toward salvation."
The orchestration calls for a small group of strings, percussion, handbells and a solo clarinet. The overall musical structure of the piece is a type of Rondo form with a recurring motive built around a rising, triadic melodic line, which is sometimes major and sometimes minor. This motive is used in the Refrain sections which are heard as every other movement (1, 3, 5, 7, & 9). The even numbered movements alternate between Lament and Dance. The solo clarinet takes the central focus as it leads these movements.
The dance movements are rhythmically irregular and are scored for the whole ensemble. Tavener though, attempting to retain the chamber music concept with this piece, calls for a director, seated on the same level as the performers, instead of a conductor. Although the clarinet is the focal instrument throughout, this piece does not have the character of a concerto. One reason is because of its chamber-like quality and another is the fact that the clarinet is integrated with the ensemble, not in an opposing position to it.
For a composition of the twentieth century, this work, does not have the innovative quality that is exciting to me as a listener and composer. Its harmonies are relatively traditional, by contemporary standards, and its melodic vocabulary is colorful, but recognizable. The middle eastern / Greek flavor is enjoyable but becomes predictable after a short period of time.
The aspect that intrigues me the most is the orchestration. The chamber-like orchestra that includes the powerful timpani sections is an interesting concept to consider. But more than that, the incorporation of handbells gives this piece its most unique quality. There are some splendid colors that come from this integration of sounds.
Also, the division into many short sections gives this work a more dramatic
appeal. The mood changes, like scene changes, seem to carry
me along better than longer, fewer sections would, and the use of the recurring
motive establishes a good sense of unity and provides solid "stepping stones"
for the listener to traverse the piece. This is not a "ground-breaking"
work, but a very enjoyable piece to listen to.