(Staff) THE COMPOSER of the hauntingly beautiful Song for Athene, which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, died on Nov. 12th. Sir John Tavener, who was renowned for his sacred music, was aged 69. He was considered the most popular British classical composer of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Tavener had a brief partnership in 1968 with the Beatles when The Whale (a tumultuous cantata based on the story of Jonah) was recorded on their Apple label. But by the late 1970s he had moved away from dissonance to more ethereal tones. One of Tavener’s most celebrated works is the exquisite, unaccompanied choral setting of William Blake’s poem The Lamb (1982), which is often performed as a Christmas anthem. The cello concerto The Protecting Veil, with its “shimmering beauty” became a best-selling album when it was performed by Steven Isserlis in 1989.
When he was twelve years old, Tavener heard performed Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and loved it for the rest of his life. The same year he heard Igor Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, which he later described as “the piece that woke me up and made me want to be a composer.” Except for Stravinsky and the devout Roman Catholic, Olivier Messiaen, Tavener had little time for 20th century composers.
For 14 years he was an organist at a Presbyterian church in London but became attracted to the Catholic mysticism of St John of the Cross. In 1977 he converted to Russian Orthodoxy. He completed a setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the principal eucharistic liturgy of the Orthodox Church. His collaborator on liturgical texts was a Russian Orthodox abbess, Mother Thelka, who was also his spiritual adviser until her death in 2011. The Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987) was written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Beautiful Names (2007), a setting in Arabic of the 99 names of Allah found in the Qur’an prompted rumours that Tavener had abandoned Christianity. But only days before his death he reiterated on the BBC both his desire to explore the musical traditions of other religions, and his adherence to the Orthodox Christian faith. In 2013 Tolstoy’s Creed and Three Hymns of George Herbert were premiered in Washington. His funeral, according to the Greek Orthodox rite, was held in Winchester Cathedral, where many of his works had been performed.
Tavener recognised Estonian Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) as “a kindred spirit” and shared with him a common religious tradition and a fondness for textural transparency. The term “holy minimalism” is often used to group Tavener, Pärt and Polish Catholic composer Henryk Górecki (1933-2010). All three share a simplified approach to texture, tonality and melody in works often reflecting deeply held religious beliefs.
Fellow English composer and childhood schoolmate, John Rutter, described Tavener as having the “very rare gift” of being able to “bring an audience to a deep silence.” TAP