John Tavener, who died yesterday aged 69, was one of contemporary music’s most remarkable figures: his ability, especially, to write works that connected with ordinary people was unsurpassed in the contemporary music world. Whilst to many this was a source of suspicion – the term ‘holy minimalist’, often applied to him by critics, was not one of endearment – there is little doubting that his was a distinct musical voice.
Born in 1944, Tavener began composing at Highgate School. Even at this time religion was a vital inspiration–one of his earliest compositions, written at the age of 15, was a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets Spit in my face you Jewes. After studying with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy, he rose to prominence with his cantata The Whale, premiered in 1969 by the London Sinfonietta in their inaugural concert. On attending the first performance, the Guardian critic Meirion Bowen remarked of the 24-year old composer: ‘to my mind, John Tavener is the discovery of the year. An extraordinarily gifted and imaginative composer.’ The work, especially because of its association with the Beatles (who were persuaded to release it on their Apple record label), led to Tavener becoming something of a cult figure in swinging sixties London.
Bowen had also wryly observed that Tavener was ‘one of the most colourful sights on the concert platform.’ Tavener’s distinctive looks – the tall wiry frame that lent him an aspect of ethereal delicacy – proved to be an outward sign of internal problems; he was a lifelong sufferer of a cardio-vascular condition known as Marfan Syndrome. His awareness of this in the 70s perhaps gave greater urgency to his spiritual searching. This was initially manifested in an interest in Catholic mysticism. His Ultimos Ritos (1972), for example, sets quotations from the Crucifixus of Bach’s B Minor Mass against poetry of St. John of the Cross, even the disposition of the forces – the choir is arranged in the form of a cross – reinforcing the religious message. There was also a large-scale opera, Thérèse, which examined the life of the French Saint, who died at the age of 24 in excruciating pain following a loss of faith. By the time of the work’s first performance in 1979, however, Tavener had already converted to the Russian Orthodox Church.
The mid to late 70s had proved to be a difficult period for the composer. The early success of The Whale had initially led to an ongoing relationship with Apple with the release of his Celtic Requiem and Nomine Jesu. However, during much of the latter period his music had lain unrecorded. His personal life too had been unhappy; he was badly affected by the failure of his brief marriage in 1974 to the Greek dancer Victoria Maragopoulou. Neither did the 1980s start auspiciously. In 1980, at the age of 36, he suffered a stroke that was to mark an intensification of his health problems. Creatively, however, this period saw the emergence of his mature compositional voice, resulting in a number of works remarkable for both their intense spirituality and their penetration into popular culture.
His 1982 setting of the Blake poem The Lamb, which contrasted mirrored intervals and simple harmonisations, won wide popularity and is probably his most frequently performed work. Subsequent compositions – Ikon of Light (1983), Orthodox Vigil Service (1984) and Panikhida(1986) – continued this trend, but it was The Protecting Veil (1988) that marked his re-emergence in mainstream popular culture. The recording of the work, a large-scale Maryan devotion for cello and string orchestra, quickly became a best-seller. Around this time the media increasingly portrayed him as a kind of spiritual guru, often photographed in quasi-religious dress and with Orthodox religious paraphernalia. It was an image that did little to win over his critics, and was something he later regretted, remarking: ‘They used to come with props and dress me up and I let it go. But I find it a bit offensive now, because those pictures suggest a cheap easy spirituality when it was actually hard. I feel I should have shut up about Orthodoxy and just got on with it.’
Tavener’s international popularity intensified in 1997 with the performance of his Song for Athene (1993) at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. There were also, however, more substantial projects in preparation. The Veil of the Temple (2002), for example, is a work of both cosmic length and sustained simplicity, the performance lasting seven hours. His Requiem (2007), at a more terse 30 minutes, is a moving multi-faith exploration of the theme of death. The work also, sadly, marked a sudden decline in the composer’s health. He suffered two heart attacks in 2007-8 and was unable to compose for several years.
One senses that the road to recovery was more than physical for the composer – that it had also led to a reappraisal in other areas. Partly this was expressed in regrets as to how his religiosity had been marketed to the detriment of his music. It is also significant that his illness had led him back to classical works that he had long eschewed. Of this potential new direction he said: ‘what I am writing is scaling down. It’s more intimate, more personal, much of it addressed to my family. Religion has become a more interior process.’ In one of his last interviews, cruelly billed as a 70th birthday tribute, he was full of plans for the future. Sadly, these will never be fulfilled. We are left, however, with a remarkable creative life to ponder and, not least, a canon of works that prove that contemporary music can connect with ordinary people in the most vital way.