I was very sad to hear of Sir John Tavener’s death. He had, for many years, been a shining light in British music and his works are breathtakingly beautiful. His unique sound, for me, optimized what music is really all about; serenity, spirituality, sincerity and emotion. The choral pieces, for which he was synonymous, are sacrosanct, sensitive and highly expressive works. Classical music, particularly piano music, is all too often about showmanship; even serious, intellectual pieces, are frequently awash with bravura, depending on a performer’s good technique and impressive finger work for success. Many works by great composers tend to fall into this category; not that I don’t enjoy or appreciate virtuosity because I do, but it can obscure the real meaning behind the music. That which speaks to me most profoundly, is often unaccompanied voices particularly in a church setting, and Tavener’s music most certainly falls into this category. He represented a ‘new’ classical music, neither Serialist nor Minimalist, and audiences, from a wide variety of backgrounds, loved it.
Born in 1944, Tavener studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir Lennox Berkeley, coming to prominence in 1968 with the dramatic cantata, The Whale, based on the old testament story of Jonah. It was premièred at the London Sinfonietta’s début concert and later recorded on The Beatles label, Apple Records. Early influences included Stravinsky and Messiaen, later his music became more sparse. Orthodox theology and Orthodox liturgical traditions became a major influence and he was fascinated by its mysticism. The Veil of the Temple (2002) inspired by the Mother of God, was premiered at the BBC Proms with cellist Steven Isserlis a soloist, marking substantial recognition for Tavener. Tavener explored many faiths and had a universalist approach to religion.
Important works include The Protecting Veil (1988; cello, strings), Ikon of the Nativity (1991; SATB choir, a cappella), Song for Athene (1993; SATB choir), Fall and Resurrection (2000) (Dedicated to The Prince of Wales), Lamentations and Praises (2001; 12 male voices, string quartet, flute, bass trombone, percussion), The Veil of the Temple (2002; soprano, SATB choir, boys’ choir, ensemble), Laila (Amu) (2004; soprano, tenor, orchestra, and Lament for Jerusalem (2006; soprano, countertenor, SATB choir, orchestra).
He will be forever linked with the funeral of Princess Diana, which included a performance of his Song for Athene closing the funeral service; televised and broadcast from Westminster Abbey, it assured Tavener global success. Following Diana’s death, he also composed and dedicated to her memory the piece Eternity’s Sunrise, based on poetry by William Blake. One of Tavener’s most popular works is his short unaccompanied four-part choral setting of William Blake’s The Lamb, written for his nephew Simon on his third birthday one afternoon in 1982. This simple, homophonic piece is usually performed as a Christmas carol. He relished working with a variety of different artists; the 2004 première of his piece Prayer of the Heart was written for and performed by pop star Bjork. In 2000 Tavener was awarded a knighthood. He will be greatly missed.