Discovering the music of John Tavener

John Tavener was one of our most treasurable creative talents. A friend of John Lennon and Ringo Starr during their mid-1960s Beatles peak, and the favourite British composer of Prince Charles, Tavener introduced a contemplative stillness and artful simplicity into a music scene ravaged by the gaudy excesses of the avant garde movement.

At a time when many composers were reaching outwards in a desperate attempt to embrace popular idioms and world music, Tavener turned inwards following his conversion to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1977, resulting in a steady flow of hauntingly beautiful vocal scores without precedent in modern times. 

Like his Estonian colleague Arvo Pärt, Tavener opened up a new creative world in which the smallest gesture was of the greatest significance. Listening to a score by Tavener re-engages and sharpens our aural sensitivities. As each meticulously balanced melodic line gently unfolds one has a strange sense of the infinite opening up before one, almost as though time has become momentarily suspended. 

Yet behind such deceptively simple musical foregrounds lies a musical imagination of supreme ingenuity; witness The Lamb, a heavenly choral miniature that is miraculously derived from just seven different notes. For Tavener, life, art and spiritual belief are about the tantalising dichotomy that experience and knowledge should lead ultimately to a divine state of innocence. 

Unlike many great composers, Tavener’s spiritual and musical destiny was mapped out for him from the very start. His parents were devout Presbyterians with a strong interest in music, and by the time he won a scholarship to Highgate School in north London, he was already an accomplished pianist and organist. 

The great English piano virtuoso Solomon was so captivated by Tavener’s playing that he encouraged his young protégé to consider a career as a touring performer. However, Tavener had already caught the composing bug via a pair of sacred pieces he had written in the early 1960s – Credo and Genesis, a short oratorio. When in 1962 he began studies at the Royal Academy Of Music in London there was simply no stopping him. In any case the situation was decided when he began to suffer neurasthenic pains in his back and legs, which effectively ruled out a virtuoso career. 

Tavener’s creative thinking now went into overdrive thanks to lessons with Lennox Berkeley, increasing exposure to the music of Boulez, Ligeti and Messiaen, and the presence of such distinguished fellow students as Richard Rodney Bennett, David Bedford, William Mathias and Nicholas Maw. Tavener emerged as a fully paid-up avant-gardist with his Piano Concerto, a one-act opera entitled The Cappemakers and the cantata Cain and Abel. 

Yet the work that launched him to stardom was his 1968 dramatic cantata The Whale, premiered by the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton as part of the ensemble’s debut concert. The work’s dizzying melange of amplified percussion, pre-recorded tape and a chorus using loudhailers so captured the bracing, “flower-power” spirit of the time that John Lennon took the unprecedented step of inviting Tavener to record the work on The Beatles’ newly created Apple label. Following impressive sales, the follow-up was the all-embracing Celtic Requiem, which includes parts for Aeolian bagpipes, electric and bass guitars. 

Until now, everything had seemed easy for the young genius. He composed In Alium for the 1968 Proms in just three weeks – it created such a sensation at its premiere that the promenaders insisted it was encored in the second half of the concert – and the following year the 25-year-old composer was appointed Professor of Composition at Trinity College of Music in London. 

Then Benjamin Britten unintentionally put the cat among the pigeons by inviting Tavener to compose a full-length opera for the Royal Opera House. To receive such an accolade from arguably the world’s leading master of the genre seems to have sparked in Tavener a crisis of artistic identity. 

Initially Tavener decided on Notre Dame as a subject, but after much painful effort he decided to withdraw it and set to work instead on Thérèse (1973-76). This proved no less problematic during the preparatory stages, but in the event audiences lapped it up – even if the critics were rather less fulsome in their praise. 

By now Tavener was, by his own admission, “drinking far too much whisky” in the wake of the break-up of his first marriage to the 20-year-old ballerina Victoria Maragopoulou, which lasted only eight months. He was on the brink of a breakdown when in 1977 he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church, a crucial event that he has since described as “a homecoming”. Gradually he began to find his old composing facility returning and with it a new uncluttered simplicity of style that has since defined his creative outlook. 

Spiritually and musically speaking, Tavener had turned the corner. Yet it was also around this time that he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the heart that typically affects people with disproportionately long limbs (Tavener is six feet six inches tall), and which led to a gradual deterioration of his health during the 1980s. 

However, creatively, Tavener’s rediscovery of the essential purity and innocence of his gift was bearing fruit in a series of sacred choral miniatures that redefined his status as a composer. Most celebrated of these intoxicating spiritual masterpieces is The Lamb (1982) for unaccompanied chorus, yet scarcely less memorable is Ikon Of Light (1983) for chorus and string trio, Orthodox Vigil Service (1984) for priests, chorus and handbells, and the Akathist Of Thanksgiving (1987), which many consider his finest masterpiece. 

In 1989, Tavener notched up two major successes with his mesmerising choral work Resurrection and the Steven Isserlis-led Proms premiere of his Protecting Veil (written in 1987) for cello and orchestra, which went on to become an international best-selling album. 

Just when it looked as though Tavener had conquered the worst his demons could throw at him, in 1990 he had to be resuscitated on the operating table when his heart stopped beating during an operation to remove a tumour from his jaw. This death-defying experience had a profound effect upon Tavener’s outlook on life. 

“Before my illness I’d always had a morbid fear of death,” he reflected, “but since the operation, death has become one’s spouse. It’s not terrifying any more. The possibility of eternal life is always there, but no one can tell you. The Roman Church will tell you if you do this you’ll go there, if you do that you’ll go someplace else. It feels as if you’re arriving at Heathrow Airport. But we don’t know the judgment of God – no one knows.” 

The year 1991 was to prove axiomatic for Tavener. Determined to make the most of any time remaining, he married Maryanna, a remarkable woman 21 years younger than himself. Initially worried about the impact married life and becoming a father might have on his composing – he has two daughters, Theodora and Sofia – in the event it proved a vital tonic. 

“Fatherhood hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be,” he confessed, “and it’s made no difference to my writing. It might just have made me marginally less selfish.” 

By now he had also developed a close friendship with Mother Thekla, a former Cambridge graduate and intelligence officer during the war, who had co-founded the Monastery of the Assumption in Whitby, Yorkshire. She remained his spiritual mentor until 2003 when Tavener’s increasing interest in eastern religions led to a rift between the two. 

During the past 10 years, Tavener has become established as Britain’s most popular living composer, not least after his Song For Athene (1993) was memorably performed during the closing stages of Princess Diana’s funeral on September 6, 1997. A New Beginning played out the last few minutes of the 20th century at the Millennium Dome in 1999, and the following year Tavener was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen.

His exploration of Hinduism, Islam and the philosophical teachings of the German philosopher and metaphysician Frithjof Schuon led in recent years to such hypnotic musical incantations as Lalishri (2006), written specially for violinist Nicola Benedetti. 

“The one thing that exists is God: everything else is an illusion,” declared Tavener in 2004, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. “If you love someone, you don’t really love that person, you love God. I can’t see it any other way. There’s only one being, one thing. There’s only one God and only one thing that exists, and that is God. We are God, and we have to find that in ourselves. It’s you and I, there is no other. It’s all one.” 

The Essential Collection 

For The Complete Picture 

The Protecting Veil (1987)
Steven Isserlis (vlc), London Symphony Orchestra/Rozhdestvensky
“I wished to make a lyrical icon in sound, using the music of the cello rather than the brush,” said Tavener. “I have tried to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God. She is represented by the cello and never stops singing; the accompanying string music is an extension of her unending song.”
Virgin Classics 363 2932 

For Spiritual Balm 

Song For Athene (1993)
Westminster Abbey Choir/Martin Neary
The magical, long-breathed stillness of eastern orthodoxy profoundly influenced the Song For Athene, which incorporates Shakespeare into the Orthodox funeral service. This moving and now much-loved work was memorably performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, on September 6, 1997.
Sony SK 66613 

For Late Period Mastery 

Lalishri (2006)
Nicola Benedetti (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
Lalishri was inspired by the 14th-century Hindu Saint and poet Lalla Yogishwari, whose expressive intensity and innocence Tavener found exactly paralleled in the artistry of Nicola Benedetti. The five sections move from ritual dance to a musical expression of bliss.
DG 476 6198 

For Choral Bliss 

Lament For Jerusalem (2002)
Angharad Gruffydd Jones (sop), Peter Crawford (ct), Choir of London, Choir of London Orchestra/Jeremy Summerly
Sung in Greek and English, the Lament For Jerusalem is a mystical love song that unites Christian, Judaic and Islamic texts in a moving realisation of Christ’s sorrow at Jerusalem’s rejection of every messenger that God had sent it.
Naxos 8.557826