Late last night/early this morning I was feeling restless, so instead of going to bed, I decided to proof some chapters of Julius Evola’s East and West. But I needed some night music. So I put on John Tavener’s The Last Sleep of the Virgin and The Hidden Treasure played by the Chilingirian Quartet. Even though this is one of my favorite CDs, I don’t play it all the time. I reserve it for night and winter. This morning I arose to the news that John Tavener died today at the age of 69.
I like all kinds of music, as long as it is beautiful. Tavener was one of the very few contemporary “classical” composers whose work I followed with favor. I first encountered Tavener in the early 1990s. I don’t remember how I heard of him. It was either in connection with his William Blake settings or with Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer of liturgical music to whom Tavener is often compared. I have followed Tavener’s life and music closely ever since. We shared two great loves: Orthodox Church music and Traditionalism.
John Kenneth Tavener was born on 28 January 1944 in Wembley. He was a direct descendant of the 16th-century composer John Taverner (with an extra “r”). According to Wikipedia, he was educated at Highgate School, where a fellow pupil was liturgical composer John Rutter, and at the Royal Academy of Music, where his teachers included Sir Lennox Berkeley.
Tavener’s early work was clearly influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen, “modernists” who also composed Christian sacred music of great beauty. In 1966, his dramatic cantata The Whale, based on the Old Testament story of Jonah, was premiered at the London Sinfonietta’s debut concert. In 1968, it was released by the Beatles’ Apple Records. In 1969 he premiered his Celtic Requiem, which was released by Apple in 1971. In 1973, he completed his first opera, Thérèse, the story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, commissioned by the Royal Opera, London.
Tavener’s mature works are characterized by a timeless, mystical quality. Like most people, I was disappointed with Tavener’s early works, which I encounted only after coming to love is later ones. It is hard to recognize the later Tavener in them.
After Thérèse, Tavener left the public eye for many years, rethinking his music and worldview. In 1977, he entered the Russian Othodox church. Henceforth, Othodox liturgy and theology would have a decisive influence on his work. In 1988, Tavener completed The Protecting Veil for solo cello and orchestra, which is based upon an apparition of the Virgin in Constantinople in the 10th century, while the city was under siege by Muslim hosts. In the vision, the Virgin spead her protecting veil over the city. Fortified by the vision, the Byzantines broke the siege and drove the Muslims away. The Protecting Veil was premiered to wide acclaim at the 1989 Proms and released by Virgin in 1992. It is one of his most widely played and recorded works.
Other notable works by Tavener are Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987), a massive choral composition written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church, released by Sony in 1994; Song for Athene (1993), which was heard by hundreds of millions when it was performed in 1997 at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales; and his settings of William Blake, including The Lamb, The Tiger, and Eternity’s Sunrise.
In recent years, Tavener revealed an interest in Traditionalism, particularly the writings of Frithjof Schuon. He also read René Guénon, but I do not know if he read Evola. Tavener began to incorporate non-Western elements to his compositions, with considerable success (for instance Shunya). He also composed the Schuon Hymnen and Schuon Lieder based on texts by Schuon. Although the press interpreted his engagement with Traditionalism as a break with Orthodoxy, this was a mistake, based on the false assumptions that Traditionalists cannot also be Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Christians cannot treat other spiritual traditions with respect. Tavener remained Orthodox to the end.
Tavener also wrote two books: Ikons: Meditations in Words and Music (London: Fount, 1994), co-authored by Mother Thekla, his spiritual mentor, and The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 2000).
Tavener was a tall, gaunt man with life-long health problems. He suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissues that often has severe effects on the cardiovascular system. Tavener had a stroke when he was in his thirties and multiple heart attacks beginning in his forties. But he continued to create, in spite of his frailty — indeed, sometimes inspired, sometimes driven by it — until the end of his life.
He left the world a more beautiful place.