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Tavener, John

John Tavener


At first glance, John Tavener is something of a paradox: a profoundly religious, deeply spiritual composer who enjoys enormous popularity in a world that many define as materialistic, shallow, and indifferent to religion. However, the paradox disappears in the experience of his music, which, according to critics and fans, speaks to the soul, inviting the listener, regardless of his or her particular beliefs or disbeliefs, to ponder the great mysteries of human existence. Essentially, Tavener strives to glorify God in his music, but he does more: unlike the traditional religious composer who praises God, Tavener attempts, in his music, to build bridges to divine realms. These heroic efforts seem at odds with the Western tradition, which denies music such awesome powers. St. Augustine, for example, would have regarded Tavener as a sinner. "Yet when I happened to be moved more by the singing than by what is sung," he wrote in his Confessions, "I confess to have sinned grievously, and then wish I had not heard the singing."

Not only does Tavener listen to his inner song, but he goes as far as it will take him. Tavener gets great spiritual support in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which he formally embraced in 1977. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, music and the visual arts enjoy an exceptional, even exalted, status. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its veneration of icons, with its understanding of God as an archetype of beauty, encourages the artist to create works in which the viewer, or listener, will capture a glimpse of the eternal order. Indeed, the majestic stillness, mystical intensity, spell-binding color, and sonic opulence (drawn from an array of Western and Asian instruments) of Tavener's music brings to mind the luminous presence of Byzantine icons.

Tavener enjoyed success very early in his career. Born on January 28, 1944, in London, England, he grew up in a musical atmospherehis father was an organist at a Presbyterian church. As a child, Tavener excelled in piano and organ, also manifesting a powerful talent as composer. He was still a teenager when his first works were performed. In 1962 he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music. Tavener's teachers included the legendary pianist Solomon and the eminent English composer Lennox Berkeley. During his studies, Tavener composed several works, including an opera, and became familiar with the works of Europe's leading composers. In 1968 the performance of his cantata, The Whale, created a sensation. Listeners admired Tavener's extraordinary amalgam of compositional techniques, sonic experimentation, and lyrical expansiveness. Tavener, however, was seeking other horizons.

With the Celtic Requiem (1969), Tavener moved into a new dimension as a composer. Deeply imbued with Catholic spirituality, this work not only reflected the composer's desire to explore a different spiritual tradition, but it also identified him as an artist whose creative methods are inextricably tied to his spiritual insights. Thus, in the Celtic Requiem, one hears that paradoxical "static movement," that profound inner musical duration that a superficial listener would perceive as motionlessqualities often described as essential to Tavener's music. Among the many admirers of this composition were the Beatles, who later had the Celtic Requiem released on their Apple label. Following this success, Tavener received numerous commissions and a professorship in composition at Trinity College. Thus, by the early 1970s, Tavener had a dazzling career. But he yearned for a deeper kind of fulfillment. He found musical inspiration in the Catholic tradition, completing several works before enlarging on an ambitious project, the opera Thérèse, inspired by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Completed in 1976, this complex and technically demanding work may have reflected a certain malaise caused by a spiritual tradition he could not accept as his own.

In 1977 Tavener joined the Eastern Orthodox Church, finally finding a spiritual home. The Eastern Orthodox tradition was an entire universe, which Tavener explored with great zeal, writing liturgical works and also setting Greek and Russian poetry to music. In the 1980s Tavener's Orthodox religiosity inspired a variety of power choral works, in which he transformed a tremendous religious sentiment into music of immense melodic appeal and structural clarity. Exemplifying this new phase in Tavener's development as a composer are Ikon of Light, the Vigil Service, the Akathist of Thanksgiving, and the cantata Eis Thanaton. While these compositions brought Tavener considerable critical acclaim, it was a composition for cello and string orchestra that truly enchanted his audiences. Named The Protecting Veil, this extraordinary composition celebrates the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, which the Byzantine church established to commemorate Mary's appearance in Constantinople around a.d. 900. As the Byzantine capital was threatened by a Saracen army, the Mother of God spread her veil over the Christians. Heartened by this majestic vision, the Byzantine armies defeated the enemy. Representing the singing voice of the Virgin Mary, the cello plays a passionately soulful melody, which reverberates throughout the unimaginable vastness of the universe, accompanied by the luminous voices of the string ensemble. What the music attempts to capture is not the vision itself, but Mary's ineffable majesty, compassion, and tremendous power.

As a Christian composer, Tavener always returned to the fundamental questions of his faith; this is evidenced by works such as Resurrection and The Apocalypse, in which Tavener explores the central mysteries of his faith, creatively contrasting extremely difficult texts with clear musical textures. Tavener's desire to purify his style is clearly evident in his dramatic work, Mary of Egypt (1991), a musical narrative based on the life of a saintly prostitute, in which he addresses the Christian principle of non-judgment. "Mary of Egypt, " Tavener explained in The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament, "is an attempt to create an ikon in sound about non-judgment."

Following the 1997 performance of Song for Athene, which was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana, Tavener's popularity surged. In 2000 he received the knighthood and several significant commissions, and an important work, Fall and Resurrection, had its premiere at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Once again, however, success prompted Tavener to expand his artistic vision. Indeed, commenting on works such as Song of the Cosmos (2000) and The Veil of the Temple (2001), critics have sensed a new spirit of universalism in Tavener's music. Indeed, in the new millennium, Tavener has drawn from the world's great mystical traditions, using Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu sources.

For the Record . . .

Born John Kenneth Tavener on January 28, 1944, in London, England. Education: Attended Royal Academy of Music.

Organist at St. John's Church, Kensington, London, 1961-75; professor of composition at Trinity College.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best Classical Contemporary Composition for Lamentations and Praises, 2003.

Addresses: Music publisher Chester Novello, 8-9 Frith St., London W1D 3JB England, website:

Throughout his career, Tavener has bravely struggled to avoid the fate of the "contemporary composer," whom Brian Keble, writing in The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament, described as "the lonely high priest presiding over an ideology of sound ordered almost solely by considerations of technique." Keble concluded: "The young Tavener joined no school, albeit he was certainly heir to this innovatory spirit, only to discover that it did not accord with his essentially religious imagination. He subsequently spent twenty years divesting himself and his music of this legacy. Other voices have summoned him. The spiritual dynamic of the 'intellective organ of the heart' empowers trajectories of joy, sorrow, beauty, love, compassion, awe and reverence, that surmount the limited sphere of egocentric sensibility. At such trajectories the music of John Tavener is aimed."

Selected compositions

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (chorus), 1981.

Eis Thanaton (vocal soloists and small ensemble), 1985.

The Protecting Veil (cello and string orchestra), 1987.

Mystagogia (orchestra), 1988.

Mary of Egypt (musical drama), 1990.

The Apocalypse (vocal soloists, choirs, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings), 1991.

Theophany (orchestra), 1993.

Ikon of Eros (soprano, violin, chorus, percussion, and strings), 2000.

Lament for Jerusalem (vocal soloists, chorus, percussion, and strings), 2000.

Song of the Cosmos (vocal soloists, chorus, percussion, strings, and organ), 2000.

Veil of the Temple (vocal soloists, narrator, double chorus, and orchestra), 2002.

Supernatural Songs (chorus, strings, and percussion), 2003.

Selected discography

The Uncreated Eros, Hyperion, 1993.

Akathist of Thanksgiving, Sony, 1994.

Theophany, Chandois, 1996.

The Protecting Veil, Telarc, 1998.

Ikon of Light, Gimell, 2001.

The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Olympia, 2002.

Mary of Egypt, Regis, 2003.



Grout, Donald Jay, and Claude V. Palisca, editors, A History of Western Music, W. W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.

Tavener, John, The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament, Faber and Faber, 1999.


America, April 10, 1993, p. 15.

Commonweal, January 26, 2001, p. 20.


"John Tavener," Chester Novello, (November 21, 2003).

Zoran Minderovic

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Tavener, John Kenneth

Tavener, John Kenneth (1944– ) English composer. He achieved early success with his biblical cantata The Whale (1966) and has continued to compose works that are religious in character and inspiration. The opera Thérèse (1973–76) is a fine example of his early style. His conversion (1977) to the Eastern Orthodox Church accompanied a move towards a more austere musical style. A feast of the Orthodox Church inspired The Protecting Veil (1987), for cello and orchestra.

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