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Sir John Tavener, saintly and controversial composer

By Emma Greenstein


The recent death of renowned British composer Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) precipitated mourning and reflection on an international scale. By the time of his death, the visionary composer had received numerous honors, including the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, the 2005 Ivor Novello Classical Music Award, and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. His works were almost exclusively religious in nature; nevertheless, they held appeal for sacred and secular audiences alike. This distinctive combination of spirituality and mass appeal granted Tavener a unique niche in Western classical music.

Sir John Tavener. Photo by Devlin Crow. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Sir John Tavener. Photo by Devlin Crow. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Tavener’s devotion to both music and faith was evident from an early age. As a student at London’s Highgate School, which was renowned for its choral programs and frequent collaborations with the BBC in musical endeavors, he honed his already formidable skills in composition, piano and organ. He became organist and choirmaster at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington in 1961 and entered the Royal Academy of Music the following year. However, Tavener’s immersion in the doctrines and music of Western Christianity ultimately proved unfulfilling. In 1977, following his brief marriage to the young Greek ballerina Victoria Maragopoulou, he converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. His devotion to this faith would be the guiding force of his work for the rest of his life.

Tavener’s commercial success began in 1970 with the release of The Whale (1966), a dramatic cantata based on the Biblical account of Jonah and the Whale, on the Beatles’ label Apple Records. This trajectory continued in 1992, when his cello concerto The Protecting Veil (1988), inspired by the Orthodox feast of the same name and originally commissioned by the BBC for the 1989 Proms season, held the top place in the UK Classical Charts for a span of several months. The work that would complete his ascent to international acclaim was Song for Athene (1993). Ostensibly Tavener’s best-known piece, this virtuosic choral elegy drew texts from both the Orthodox funeral liturgy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was originally conceived as a belated requiem for Athene Hariades, a family friend. Four years after its inception, Song for Athene was elevated to iconic status when it was performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir under the baton of Martin Neary at the 1997 funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. As the recessional for the funeral, which was telecast from Westminster Abbey and viewed worldwide by an estimated 2.5 billion people, Song for Athene came to be recognized not only as a memorial to a specific person but also as an anthem of grief for the modern era. That this outgrowth of Tavener’s personal sorrow eventually held such grave significance for a grieving populace is a testament to the far-reaching appeal of Tavener’s music.

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The compositional devices underlying a piece such as Song for Athene are manifold. Tavener counted among his artistic influences a diverse array of composers including Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messaien, Arvo Pärt, and György Ligeti. Thus it is not surprising that his works can be found at different times to espouse and spurn the diatonic system, one moment embracing neotonal idioms and the next reveling in atonality. In the neotonal Song for Athene, Tavener employs a haunting form of melodic inversion in which two lines move in exact opposition around an inaudible line of symmetry. Orthodox influences abound in Song for Athene as well as other pieces written by Tavener during his affiliation with this denomination, manifested as settings of the Orthodox liturgy, transcriptions of Byzantine chant, and ison (drones meant to anchor the melody). Mother Thekla, founder of the first Orthodox religious order in England and Tavener’s spiritual mentor, added an additional facet of spirituality to Tavener’s music through the text that she provided for a number of his pieces.

In his final years, Tavener grew to espouse the concept of religious universalism, drawing inspiration from Eastern religions as well as Christianity. Given the tumultuous political milieu of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, this was a controversial but timely guiding principle. Tavener’s newfound approach to spirituality was embodied in The Veil of the Temple (2002), a seven-hour long setting of eight prayer cycles drawing from a vast array of belief systems including Orthodox Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Native American religions. Tavener regarded The Veil of the Temple as “the supreme achievement of his life,” and it was a success among critics and audiences alike. More controversial was The Beautiful Names (2007), a setting in the original Arabic of the ninety-nine names of Allah as written in the Quran. Despite the fact that Charles, Prince of Wales himself had commissioned the piece, detractors claimed that in writing The Beautiful Names, Tavener had abandoned Christianity. Not to be deterred by this criticism tinged with religious prejudice, Tavener wrote, “I regard The Beautiful Names highly and think of it as one of the most important of my works.”

While Tavener was represented by turns as saintly and controversial, his ability to create works that appealed to all manifestations of human spirituality and emotion remained constant. There is no doubt that the legacy of John Tavener—an all-encompassing form of spiritual music for a changing world—will remain with us for years to come.

Emma Greenstein is currently interning for the music publications team in the Academic/Trade division. She is a trained opera singer and amateur musicologist whose interests center on music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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