The immense popularity of the music of John Tavener, who died on Tuesday, 12 November, belies our age of supposed hipster irony. For here was a composer who spoke simply and directly from an inner, spiritual world in ways which communicated with millions of people, regardless of whether they shared his Orthodox faith – or any belief in God.
Born in 1944, John Tavener first emerged as an avant-garde composer – himself a hip, child of the sixties – with experimental works such as The Whale (1966) and the Celtic Requiem (1969). It was The Whale which first brought Tavener fame through an unexpected source. Premiered by the London Sinfonietta at their inaugural concert in 1968, the oratorio made a huge impact, and its surreal, dissonant combination of encyclopaedic narrative and electronics, with children’s voices, chorus and ensemble, so delighted the Beatles that they arranged to have it recorded on their Apple label.
But Tavener’s subsequent celebrity status engendered cynicism from the classical music establishment; a cynicism which hardly abated as the maverick composer turned away from complex modernism and began composing more overtly religious music in an increasingly transparent, tonal style based on chant, melodic repetition and a kind of meditative stillness that drew on Eastern as well as ancient Western musics and religious texts. Alongside such composers as the Estonian Arvo Pärt, this supposedly more ‘accessible’ spiritual turn led to Tavener being branded, sometimes with disdain, as a ‘holy minimalist’ – but it won him new audiences of people hungry for a music which seemed to address the mysteries of existence in ways which spoke to them directly.
The irony is that, far from ‘dumbing down’ (in modern-day parlance), John Tavener himself often decried our society’s ‘huge loss of esoteric knowledge’ – at least, in religious terms – and he hoped that his music would contribute to ‘a recovery of the sacred in a new form’ in the coming together of world religions. Brought up as a Presbyterian, he converted first to Catholicism and thence to Orthodox Christianity in the late seventies at a time when a series of major health scares revealed that he had Marfan Syndrome, the condition which would eventually lead to his death.
Indeed, regardless of his more worldly persona as a young man, the mystical contemplation of death and inner life overflowed in Tavener’s music from the start; eventually touching a chord with so many across the world when his ‘Song for Athene’ was performed to cathartic effect at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Prior to this, his piece for cello and strings on the Orthodox Feast of The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God stunned the audience at its BBC Proms premiere in 1989 with its piercing, luminous sound which seemed to rise and go on rising in what Tavener described as ‘an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound’.
Growing ever frailer, and all but dying on several occasions, in recent years Tavener found he could no longer undertake such enormous tasks as his seven-hour dusk-to-dawn vigil The Veil of the Temple (2003), but he continued to compose until his death (when he felt physically and spiritually well enough), exploring his beloved Hindu metaphysics and latterly turning back to composers such as Beethoven, Stockhausen and Mozart, who inspired him in his youth before a subsequent rejection of later Western forms. He was knighted in 2000 and remained very much in the public eye right up to his eventually sudden end, recently giving what turned out to be a final interview to the Telegraph, and joining Andrew Marr to discuss the poetry of George Herbert for BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week (recorded on 31 October).
My own first encounter with Tavener’s music was a recording of his Requiem for Father Malachy; what for me as an atheist adolescent seemed a hair-raisingly austere but compelling liturgical piece, combining an arresting dissonance with plainchant, and written in 1973 for a priest he knew and loved. It strikes me that some touching words John Tavener wrote by way of programme note might well stand as his own epitaph:
As someone has said, we know and we do not know, yet know all we need, that here is a man we and the world are better for having.
He will be sorely missed by many.
The Protecting Veil and the Celtic Requiem will be performed as the culmination of next year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under David Atherton on Saturday 17 May 2014.