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 atmosphere—his 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 motionless—qualities 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: http://www.chester-novello.com.
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."
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.
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, http://www.chesternovello.com/composer/1606/main.html (November 21, 2003).
Tavener, John (Kenneth), remarkable English composer; b. London, Jan. 28, 1944. He took up the piano at an early age, and soon began to improvise and write for the instrument. A music scholarship to High-gate School led him to pursue studies in piano, organ, and composition. He also composed pieces for St. Andrew’s Presybterian Church in Frognall, Hampstead, where his father was organist. From 1962 to 1966 he studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, his principal mentors being Lennox Berkeley and David Lumsdaine. While still a student there, he was soloist in the premiere of his Piano Concerto (London, Dec. 6, 1963). With the premiere of his dramatic cantata Cain and Abel (London, Oct. 22, 1966), Tavener won wide recognition as well as the Prince Rainier III of Monaco Prize. He secured his reputation as a composer with The Whale (London, Jan. 24, 1968), a score for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. It was followed by the fine Il Alium for Soprano and Orch., which was first performed at a London Promenade Concert on Aug. 12, 1968. His Celtic Requiem for Soprano, Children’s Chorus, Mixed Chorus, and Orch. (London, July 16, 1969) was highly esteemed. In 1969 he joined the faculty of London’s Trinity Coll. of Music. On June 30, 1974, Tavener’s Ultimos Ritos for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. was premiered at the Holland Festival, which brought him even wider recognition outside of his homeland. His religious upbringing and his search for spiritual enlightenment led him to embrace the Russian Orthodox Church, to which he was converted in 1977. In subsequent years, his works reflected a profound sense of spiritual renewal. His scores, both sacred and secular, were nobly wrought and reflected his choice of simplification and asceticism. Among his subsequent works, particularly outstanding were his Akhmatova Requiem for Soloists and Orch. (Edinburgh, Aug. 20, 1981), The Protecting Veil for Cello and String Orch. (London, Sept. 4, 1989), the oratorio Resurrection for Soloists, Actors, Chorus, and Orch. (Glasgow, April 17, 1990), the dramatic score Mary of Egypt (Aldeburgh, June 19, 1992), The Apocalypse for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (London, Aug. 14, 1994), and Fall and Resurrection for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (London, Jan. 4, 2000).
dramatic: The Cappemakers, dramatic cantata (Sussex Festival, June 14, 1964; rev. 1965); Cain and Abel, dramatic cantata (1965; London, Oct. 22, 1966); Thérèse, opera (1973; London, Oct. 1, 1979); A Gentle Spirit, chamber opera (Bath, June 6, 1977); Eis Thanaton, ritual (1986; Cheltenham, July 5, 1987); Mary of Egypt, ikon in music and dance (1991; Aldeburgh, June 19, 1992). ORCH.: Piano Concerto (1962-63; London, Dec. 6, 1963); Chamber Concerto (1964; rev. version, London, June 12, 1968); Grandma’s Footsteps (1967-68; London, March 14, 1968); Variations on “Three Blind Mice” (1972; BBC-TV, London, Feb. 1, 1973); Palintropos for Piano and Orch. (1978; Birmingham, March 1, 1979); Towards the Son: Ritual Procession (Cheltenham, July 12, 1982); The Protecting Veil for Cello and Strings (1987; London, Sept. 4, 1989); The Repentant Thief for Clarinet and Orch. (1990; London, Sept. 19, 1991); Eternal Memory for Cello and Strings (1991; Wellington, New Zealand, Nov. 24, 1992); Theophany (1993; Basingstoke, May 3, 1994); Tears of the Angels for Violin and Strings (1995; London, June 26, 1996); Petra for Strings (1996; Aldeburgh, June 21, 1997); Wake Up..And Die for Solo Cello and Orchestral Cello Section (1996; Beauvais Festival, May 5, 1998). CHAMBER: In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky for 2 Alto Flutes, Organ, and Handbells (1971); Greek Interlude for Flute and Piano (Missenden, Oct. 10, 1979); Trisagion for Brass Quintet (1981; Huddersfield, Nov. 25, 1985); Chant for Guitar (London, May 17, 1984); Little Missenden Calm for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn (Missenden, Oct. 13, 1984); Song for Ileana for Flute (1988); The Hidden Treasure for String Quartet (1989; Keele, Feb. 18, 1991); Thrinos for Cello (Edinburgh, Aug. 24, 1990); The Last Sleep of the Virgin for String Quartet and Handbells (1991; Cheltenham, July 15, 1992); Chant for Cello (Crickade, Oct. 1, 1995); String Quartet No. 3, Diódia (1995; West Cork, July 1, 1997); Out of the Night for Viola (1996); My Gaze is ever upon You for Violin and Tape (1997; London, Nov. 30, 1998). KEYBOARD: Piano: Palin (1977; London, Nov. 24, 1980); My Grandfather’s Waltz for Piano Duet (Missenden, Oct. 10, 1980); Mandoodles (1982); In Memory of Cats (1986; London, Jan. 31, 1988); Ypakoë (1997; London, July 5, 1999). Organ: Mandelion (1981; Dublin, June 27, 1982). VOCAL: Credo for Tenor, Chorus, and 9 Instruments (1960; Hampstead, Nov. 1961); Genesis for Tenor, Chorus, Narrator, and Orch. (1962); 3 Holy Sonnets for Baritone and Orch. (1962; London, July 20, 1964); 3 Sections from T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” for High Voice and Piano (1963-64; London, Nov. 11, 1965); The Whale for Mezzo-soprano, Baritone, Children’s Chorus, Mixed Chorus, Speakers, 6 Male Actors, Orch., and Tape (1965-66; London, Jan. 24, 1968); Introit for March 27th, the Feast of St. John Damasceneior Soprano, Alto, Chorus, and Orch. (1967-68; London, March 26, 1968); 3 Surrealist Songs for Mezzo-soprano, Tape, and Piano Doubling Bongos (1967-68); In Alium for Soprano and Orch. (London, Aug. 12, 1968); Celtic Requiem for Soprano, Children’s Chorus, Mixed Chorus, and Orch. (London, July 16, 1969); Coplas for 4 Soloists, Chorus, and Tape (Cheltenham, July 9, 1970); Nomine Jesu for Mezzo-soprano, Chorus, 2 Players, and 5 Male Speakers (Dartington, Aug. 14, 1970); Responsorium in Memory of Annon Lee Silver for 2 Mezzo-soprano, Chorus, and 2 Flutes ad libitum (Birmingham, Sept. 20, 1971); Ma fin est mon commencement for Men’s Chorus and Instruments (London, April 23, 1972); Canciones Españolas for 2 Countertenors or 2 Sopranos and Instruments (London, June 8, 1972); Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch for Chorus and Orch. (Winchester, July 29, 1972); Ultimos Ritos for Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Chorus, and Orch. (1972; Holland Festival, June 30, 1974); Requiem for Father Malachy for 2 Countertenors, Tenor, 2 Baritones, and Orch. (London, June 10, 1973; rev. version, London, Dec. 1, 1979); Canticle of the Mother of God for Soprano and Chorus (1976; Rye, April 22, 1977); Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for Chorus (1977); 6 Russian Folksongs for Soprano and Instruments (1977; London, Jan. 15, 1978); Kyklike Kinesis for Soprano, Cello, Chorus, and Orch. (1977; London, March 8, 1978); Lamentation, Last Prayer and Exaltation for Soprano and Handbells or Piano (1977; Rye, April 28, 1978); The Immurement of Antigone for Soprano and Orch. (1978; London, March 30, 1979); 6 Abbasid Songs for Tenor, 3 Flutes, and Percussion (1979; Aldeburgh, June 18, 1980); Akhmatova Requiem for Soprano, Baritone, and Orch. (1979-80; Edinburgh, Aug. 20, 1981); Sappho: Lyrical Fragments for 2 Sopranos and String Orch. (1980; London, April 25, 1981); The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete for Chorus (1981); Prayer for the World for Chorus (London, Oct. 11, 1981); Risen! for Chorus and Orch. (Bedford, Oct. 19, 1981); Funeral Ikos for Chorus (1981; London, Sept. 12, 1982); Doxa for Chorus (London, Sept. 12, 1982); The Lord’s Prayer for Chorus (London, Sept. 12, 1982); The Lamb for Chorus (Winchester, Dec. 22, 1982); He Hath Entered the Heaven for 9 Treble Voices and Optional Handbells (1982; Oxford, Jan. 16, 1983); To a Child Dancing in the Wind for Soprano, Flute, Harp, and Viola (Missenden, Oct. 16, 1983); 16 Haiku of Seferis for Soprano, Tenor, and Orch. (Cardiff, May 18, 1984); Ikon of Light for Chorus and String Trio (Cheltenham, July 8, 1984); Orthodox Vigil Service for Chorus and Handbells (1984; Oxford, May 17, 1985); A Mini Song Cycle for Gina for Soprano and Piano (1984; London, April 3, 1986); Love Bade Me Welcome for Chorus (Winchester, June 28, 1985); Angels for Chorus and Organ (Basingstoke, Nov. 3, 1985); 2 Hymns to the Mother of God for Chorus (Winchester, Dec. 14, 1985); Panikhida for Chorus (London, June 21, 1986); Ikon of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne for Chorus (1986; Durham, March 20, 1987); Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Regale) for Chorus (1986; Cambridge, April 24, 1987); Meditation on the Light for Countertenor, Guitar, and Handbells (1986; Spitalfields, June 24, 1991); Akathist of Thanksgiving for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1986-87; London, Nov. 21, 1988); Wedding Prayer for Chorus (London, April 1987); Many Years for Chorus (Frinton-on-Sea, Aug. 22, 1987); Prayer (for Szymanowski) for Bass and Piano (Warsaw, Sept. 1987); Acclamation for Chorus (Canterbury, Dec. 8, 1987); God Is With Us for Tenor or Baritone, Chorus, and Organ (Winchester, Dec. 22, 1987); Hymn to the Holy Spirit for Chorus (1987; London, June 30, 1988); The Tyger for Chorus (1987; Windsor, Sept. 24, 1989); Apolytikion for St. Nicholas for Chorus (1988); Ikon of St. Seraphim for Soloists, Chorus, Violin, and Orch. (North Cornwall, Aug. 7, 1988); The Call for Chorus (Northampton, Sept. 23, 1988); Let Not the Prince be Silent (A Hymn to Christ the Saviour) for 2 Antiphonal Choruses (1988; Sherbourne Abbey, May 1989); The Uncreated Eros for Chorus (1988; London, May 18, 1990); Lament of the Mother of God for Soprano and Chorus (Norwich, June 28, 1989); Today the Virgin for Chorus (London, Dec. 27, 1989); Resurrection for Soloists, Actors, Mixed Chorus, Men’s Chorus, and Orch. (1989; Glasgow, April 17, 1990); Eonia for Chorus (1989; Cork, May 6, 1990); Psalm 121 for Chorus (1989; London, July 8, 1990); Ikon of the Trinity for Soloists and Chorus (1990; London, June 6, 1991); Thunder Entered Her (A Divine Allegory) for Chorus, Men’s Chorus, Organ, and Handbells (1990; St. Albans, June 15, 1991); A Christmas Round for Chorus (1990; London, June 6, 1992); O, Do Not Move for Chorus (1990; London, June 6, 1992); Ikon of the Nativity for Chorus (1991); The Child Lived for Soprano and Cello (London, June 7, 1992); We Shall See Him As He Is for Soprano, 2 Tenors, Chorus, and Orch. (Chester, July 18, 1992); A Village Wedding for Solo Voices (Penarth, Aug. 28, 1992); Annunciation for Soloists and Chorus (London, Nov. 25, 1992); Hymns of Paradise for Bass, Women’s Chorus, and 6 Violins (1992; London, May 27, 1993); The Lord’s Prayer for Chorus (Bury St. Edmunds, July 25, 1993); Akhmatova Songs for Soprano and Cello (Cricklade, Sept. 28, 1993); Song for Athene for Chorus (1993; London, March 28, 1994); The World Is Burning for Chorus (1993; London, March 28, 1994); The Apocalypse for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1993; London, Aug. 14, 1994); The Myrrh-Bearer for Viola, Chorus, and Percussion (1993; London, Oct. 9, 1994); Innocence for Soprano, Tenor, Chorus, Cello, and Organ (1994; London, Oct. 10, 1995); Agraphon for Soprano, String Orch., and Timpani (1994; Athens, Oct. 29, 1995); Sayati for Cello and Chorus (Cricklade, Oct. 1, 1995); Let’s Begin Again for Chorus and Orch. (Norwich, Oct. 7, 1995); Feast of Feasts for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1995; Balamand Abbey, Lebanon, March 22, 1996); Funeral Canticle for Chorus and Optional Strings (1996); Vlepondas for Soprano, Baritone, and Cello (Delphi, Aug. 10, 1996); The Hidden Face for Countertenor, Oboe, 8 Violins, and 8 Violas (London, Oct. 13, 1996); Hymn of the Unwaning Light for Chorus (1996; Sherbourne Abbey, May 17, 1997); Apolytikion of St. Martin for Chorus (London, Nov. 11, 1997); The Last Discourse for Soprano, Bass, Chorus, and Amplified Double Bass (1997; London, March 4, 1998); Lament for Constantinople for Baritone and Alto Flute (1997; London, March 6, 1998); ...depart in peace... for Soprano and Orch. (1997; London, June 25, 1998); Eternity’s Sunrise for Soprano and Orch. (1997; London, July 1, 1998); The World for Soprano and String Quartet (1997; West Cork, July 2, 1999; also for Soprano and String Orch., Belfast, Aug. 27, 1999); Fall and Resurrection for Soprano, Countertenor, Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (1997; London, Jan. 4, 2000); Apolytikion of the Incarnation for Chorus (Truro Cathedral, Aug. 5, 1998); In the Month of Athyr for Narrator and Chorus (London, Nov. 3, 1998); Nipson for Countertenor and Viol Consort (1998; Norwich, Oct. 4, 1999).
G. Haydon, J. T: Glimpses of Paradise (London, 1995).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire