Ultimos Ritos, 1971, 50' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Little Requiem for Father Malachy Lynch, 1972, 13' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Thérèse, 1973, 110' Opera
Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis, 2006, 100' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
John Tavener’s youth was no more or less infused with religion than any other pupil of Highgate, a public school near his family’s home in London. It was not until he became organist at the Presbyterian St John’s Kensington and commenced studies under Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music in 1962, that the space in his life accorded to religion began to deepen and to extend in the first of many directions: toward Catholicism.
Though the ground for spiritual enquiry had in Tavener always been naturally fertile, the seeds were most memorably sown by two people. Lennox Berkeley was himself Catholic, and although teacher and pupil only ever discussed religion in Berkeley’s ‘vague, shy, aristocratic way’, his gentle guidance left a deep impression. This impression was soon brought vividly to life by the Roman Catholic daughter of one of the Presbyterian congregation who one day, arriving unannounced at the Tavener home, bestowed on the young composer crosses and items acquired during her missions throughout Mexico and South America before declaring that she had fallen in love with him, yet had only that day enrolled to become a nun.
Inevitably, Tavener was stirred to learn more and began a friendship that further exposed him not only to the Roman Catholic faith, but to the poetry of St John of the Cross, with its themes of transcendent love; to the ‘primordially moving’ Maundy Thursday service and the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria; and most significantly, to the concept of a reality beyond our own. Catholicism became central to Tavener’s life and work, in which he says that he began ‘to think that liturgy as drama and drama as liturgy were the only means of expression.’
However, towards the end of the 1970s Tavener began to feel the Catholic Church to be prescriptive and the broader tendency of Western Christianity, to ‘begin with man, and then aspire toward God’, oppressive. On a visit to an Orthodox church, Tavener felt himself for the first time at home, and knew that in this faith he could find the balance of tradition he sought to guide him forward both in life, and in his desire to express metaphysical concepts through music.