About John Tavener

About John Tavener

John Tavener was born in Wembley Park in Middlesex on 28 January 1944. He was educated at Arnold House and Highgate, where he was a music scholar. During childhood he showed a deep affinity for elemental sounds and for music, though less for its formal study, preferring to improvise on the piano. As a choirboy at Arnold House he wrote several carols and hymns, influenced by his Presbyterian upbringing, but his first significant piece was a Duo Concertante for trombone and piano in 1958. Other works written prior to his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in 1962 include Credo (1961), a setting of Genesis (1962) and Three Holy Sonnets of John Donne, completed in 1962 but not premiered until 1964. These early works show the incipient — and enduring — influence of Stravinsky. By this time Tavener was under the tutelage of Lennox Berkeley and David Lumsdaine at the Academy, and only two years away from writing the work that would bring him the attention of a much wider audience: this was The Whale (1966), premiered in 1968 by the London Sinfonietta at their inaugural concert and released on The Beatles’ Apple Records label.

Tavener’s musical education took place in the midst of Modernist fervour. It was a movement of which he felt an instinctive and increasing mistrust, and although The Whale was inevitably influenced by the direction in which its young composer had been encouraged, it also contained a certain degree of satire and left Tavener further convinced of his need to find a musical language founded in something deeper than fashionable idiom. Through the composition of In Alium (1968), Introit for March 27, the Feast of St John Damascene (1968), Celtic Requiem (1969), Coplas (1970), Nomine Jesu (1970) and Ultimos Ritos (1972), Tavener was seeking a measure of immutability in both subject matter and manner of expression. Although all of these works were inspired by the mystical aspects of Roman Catholicism, his interest in tradition had led Tavener to believe that the Western Christian Church was a corrupted and corrupting force, having been beguiled by the same notions that had precipitated what he saw as the erosion of Western art and culture. Tavener’s last work written under the influence of Roman Catholicism was Thérèse, composed in 1973 but not premiered until 1979, by which time Tavener had become an Orthodox Christian.

Following his conversion in 1977, Tavener produced a slew of works heavily influenced by Orthodox liturgical texts, Russian and Greek writers and themes, and the Orthodox tone systems, including A Gentle Spirit (1977), Kyklike Kinesis (1977), Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1977), Palintropos (1978), Akhmatova Requiem (1980), Funeral Ikos (1981), Prayer for the World (1981) and Ikon of Light (1984). During this period, Tavener had largely cut himself off from the contemporary music scene, withdrawing into himself and his faith in the hope of achieving a clarity worthy of his preferred subjects.

In 1984, Tavener read William Blake’s poem The Lamb and instantly wrote the three-minute choral work of the same name that was to return him to the kind of popularity he had renounced following The Whale. This was one of many works that Tavener wrote ‘spontaneously’, feeling that the music was given to him by a separate agency. By this point he felt closer to finding a ‘voice’ that, paradoxically, was not his own but which allowed some greater force to be expressed through him. Major works composed during the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s include Sixteen Haiku of Seferis (1984), Orthodox Vigil Service (1984), Panikhida (1986), The Protecting Veil (1988), Eonia (1989), Resurrection (1989), The Repentant Thief (1990), The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991), Mary of Egypt (1991), Akhmatova Songs (1993), Song for Athene (1993), The Myrrh-Bearer (1993), Agraphon (1994), Diòdia (1995), Eternity’s Sunrise (1997), and Mystagogia (1998). In the closing minutes of the 20th century, Tavener premiered his work A New Beginning before thousands gathered in London’s Millennium Dome. He received a knighthood in the Millennium Honours.
 
Throughout his life Tavener suffered periodically from extreme ill health, one serious instance occurring in the 1970s, another in the early 1990s and another in the mid-2000s. In between he continued to write pieces strongly influenced by Orthodoxy and by literature. Increasingly, he became fascinated by the writings of metaphysicians such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, as well as the Sufi poets Rumi and Ibn Arabi. The Universalist teachings of these writers, and a growing interest in Hinduism, shaped Tavener's compositions of the early 2000s. Though he remained an Orthodox Christian, the Universalist belief that all organised religions are simply different interpretations of the same underlying forces informed most of Tavener’s work of this period and beyond. Significant post-millennial works include Ikon of Eros (2000), Hymn of Dawn (2002), Lament for Jerusalem (2002), Mahashakti (2003), Supernatural Songs (2003), Schuon Lieder (2003), Atma Mass (2003), The Beautiful Names (2004), Lalishri (2006), Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006), and Requiem (2007).
 
Emergency heart surgery in Switzerland, followed by many months in intensive care subsequent to the completion of Towards Silence in 2007 halted his progress for a time, as well as causing him to withdraw somewhat from spiritual themes. Weighed by extreme weakness and disillusionment, Tavener drew much comfort and inspiration from the poetry of the English metaphysical poets, from Shakespeare, from the love of his family, from the landscape of Scotland — which he had begun to visit regularly — and from a certain liking for the latter works of Elliott Carter. He also returned to his love of Tolstoy and of what he felt is the almost cosmic prowess and play of Mozart, as well as to the poetry of the Carmelite St John of the Cross, and he continued to be deeply influenced by Hindu metaphysical thought. Some of the resulting works are Three Shakespeare Sonnets (2010), Three Hymns of George Herbert (2012), The Death of Ivan Ilyich (2012), and The Play of Krishna ('Love Duet' premiered 2013).
 
At the time of his death in November 2014, Tavener was preparing Flood of Beauty, a setting of the Saundarya Lahari, a Sanskrit poem concerning Tavener’s perennial theme of the Eternal Feminine; and Requiem Fragments, concerning another: beauty in death. He was also developing music based on Scottish folk songs.