Three Holy Sonnets, 1962, 15' Soloists and orchestra
The Whale, 1966, 32' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
For as far back as his memory extended, Tavener was drawn to elemental sounds, which at three he would recreate for his grandfather in performances that gave way, over years, to increasingly sophisticated improvisation. Strong early musical influences were Stravinsky and the brilliant characterisation of Mozart: though Tavener had heard and been struck by earlier Stravinsky, it was a broadcast of the 1956 premiere of Canticum Sacrum from St Mark’s Basilica in Venice that truly captivated the young musician and turned him into an aspiring composer. Also at the age of 12, Tavener visited the Glyndebourne Festival for the first time with close family friend Lady Rhoda Birley. Though prior experiences of opera had left him unmoved, Tavener was overhwhelmed by a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he felt was a ‘total’ experience, the stylised, pantomime nature of Singspiel and its archetypal characters appealing to his burgeoning sense that the immutable was best captured by a somewhat ritualised form of expression.
As an adolescent these interests intensified and were directed into the composition of a Duo Concertante (1958) for trombone and piano for his headmaster, as well as performances with a chamber group comprising fellow Highgate School students, for whom Tavener wrote the first of what was to become Three Holy Sonnets (1962). A later role as organist and choirmaster at St John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington put the nascent composer in contact with a young woman who brought to his attention the Roman Catholic faith and the poetry of the Carmelite St John of the Cross, with its themes of transcendent love, and who elicited the first glimmers of Tavener’s reverence for the Eternal Feminine.
While studying under Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music, Tavener met the Australian composer David Lumsdaine, a former pupil of Berkeley’s who was to become a great influence on Tavener after offering to teach him gratis. Lumsdaine ‘opened the doors of Modernism’ to Tavener, who recalled that his teacher also ‘told me I would close 95 per cent of them. He was right; I did.’
Other notable early works included The Cappemakers (1964) and of course The Whale (1966), the dramatic cantata written on the brink of Tavener’s realisation that what he wished to express would never conform to formalist convention. Consequent to an encounter with John Lennon, The Whale was released on The Beatles’ Apple label, yet despite this early taste of sensation, Tavener proved no more interested in pursuing popular attention than in toeing a stylistic line with which he felt manifestly at odds.
Cain and Abel (1965)
Introit for March 27, the Feast of St John Damascene (1968)
In Alium (1968)
Celtic Requiem (1969)