John Tavener: Song for Athene

One of Tavener's best-known works, the Song For Athene achieved fame and significance after it was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Sir John Tavener had this to say about Athene, the inspiration for his most famous work: "Her beauty, both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry and music."

Rather than being about the Greek goddess of war, as many people presume, Song for Athene was written after the funeral of the daughter of a family friend – Athene Hariades – in 1993. She was an actress whom Tavener had heard reading Shakespeare and her death prompted him to amalgamate Shakespeare-derived passages with those of the orthodox funeral service. Although it was not written by the time of Athene’s funeral, its performance at another one, that of Diana, Princess of Wales, brought it to national and international attention. its sound-world is decidedly individual, refusing to bow down before any one style. It’s neither old nor new – it’s simply Tavener, haunting his audience and raging at them in turns. One of the features of the music is that it is almost inaudible at times and then suddenly bursts into almost deafening life. Although it’s usually a choral piece, special mention should be made of the arrangement made for Nicola Benedetti on the violin, with string accompaniment.

Illustration: Mark Millington

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