Anna Akhmatova (Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, 1889- 1966) was a Russian-Soviet modernist poet whose stark yet emotive descriptions of the turmoil in her native country brought her both admiration and persecution. She was notable among the artistic elite of Russia for having refused to flee at the onset of the Stalinist terror, her poetry serving as a testament to the dehumanising suffering of herself and her compatriots. Her outspoken stance was eventually curbed by the imprisonment of her son, but she neither abandoned her country nor allied herself with her persecutors.Tavener found her bleak clarity both highly moving and an expressive match for his musical aesthetic, and set her works in both Akhmatova Requiem (1980) and Akhmatova Songs (1993).

Ananda Coomaraswamy

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1887- 1947) was a Ceylon-born philosopher and art historian significant in the introduction of Indian art and culture to the West. In conjunction with his study of symbolism in art, he promoted ideas of Traditionalism and transcendent unity, and along with René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon is considered one of the three founders of Perennialism – the Traditionalist school of philosophical thought.

Carmelite Order

John Tavener has dedicated three of his works to Carmelites, members of a Catholic order believed to have been founded on Mount
Carmel in the 12th century. Particular emphasis is placed on contemplative prayer and Marian devotion – special worship of the Virgin Mary.Tavener was exposed at a forma- tive stage to the poetry of the 16th-century Carmelite St John of the Cross, whose expression of the passionate, almost erotic potential of Christian devotion had a great impact on the young composer. Another who similarly admired his work was Marie- Françoise-Thérèse Martin, later to become the Carmelite St Thérèse of Lisieux and share patronage of France with Joan of Arc.Tavener has set the works of St John of the Cross in Ultimos Ritos (1972), and dramatised St Thérèse of Lisieux’s final year in Thérèse (1973-6).


A cruciform shape is one mir- roring the structure of a cross, specifically a crucifix.Tavener has specified that certain works be performed in cruci- form spaces (such as churches and cathedrals), usually when the subject mat- ter pertains to Christian worship. Often the performers and even the audience are arranged to conform to this shape, thus en- hancing the total reflection of the subject matter, and exploiting the acoustic potential of the space.

Desert Spirituality

The practice of retreating into the desert to live as a hermit or in a community of religious ascetics grew out of the Old Testament
commandment by God for his people to wander the desert for 40 years.This seclusion in harsh conditions is seen either as a test of one’s faith, or an opportunity to distance oneself from worldly distractions and approach as near as possible to the Divine. Desert spirituality has had an especially profound influence on Eastern Christianity, and consequently on several of Tavener’s works following his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy in 1977.

Eternal Feminine

The Eternal Feminine is a concept of the feminine manifestation of divine energy. Where male energy is aggressive, egoistic and competitive, the Eternal
Feminine encompasses creation, nurture, sustenance and compassion – the altruistic traits of the mother – as well as the attrac- tion and fertility of the virgin.This concept has always had profound significance for Tavener, who claims that his spiritual under- standing has been deepened by every woman he has ever known, and that a greater emphasis on the feminine is needed to re- dress the current imbalance of masculine energy dominating modern culture. However, it is important to note that the concept of the Eternal Feminine stems from a general set of tendencies displayed by females, rather than being the exclusive preserve of women.

Gerard McLarnon

Gerard McLarnon (1915-1997) was an Irish playwright and actor, and a friend of Tavener’s who collaborated with him as a librettist during the 1970s.


The Godhead is the ultimate truth, reality and source of divine energy. Regardless of the differing guises imposed on the Godhead by various religious traditions, this is a neutral term referring to this transcendent life-force. Universalist thought teaches that it is at the root of every theology, while individual religions characterise it more specifically.

René Guénon

René Guénon (1886-1951) was a French intellectual and Traditionalist with a particular interest in the universality of Eastern religious doctrines. Also known as Shaykh Abd al-Wahid Yahya following his 1911 initiation into Sufism, he sought to use these doctrines as a means of enlightening western spiritual tradition as to the similarities between all religious thought.Tavener has been significantly influenced by his writings, in particular La Crise du Monde Moderne, which expressed his conviction that much of the unhappiness encroaching upon modern culture is inextricably linked to the degenera- tion of spiritual traditions and fulfilment.


The dominant religion of India, Hinduism compre- hends ideas of spiritual strata through which a soul or self (Ātman) might journey by means of devotional rigour to reach unity with the Infinite, or Brahman. The self in this case does not refer to the ego, but rather to the true essence of each being, which is both itself and everything – separate from yet identical to Brahman. These concepts are central to Tavener’s latter exploration of Universalism, as Hinduism comes closer than many other spiritual traditions to acknowledging and accommodating the idea of the transcendent unity of all religions.


Icons (or ikons) are visual representations of Biblical episodes; of the lives of saints; and of historical events in church history.
In the Orthodox Church, these are most often two- dimensional, and highly stylised.The veneration and use of iconography is a fundamental part of Eastern Orthodox worship, though this came under heavy and prolonged attack during the Iconoclast Controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, when literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments catalysed significant instability within Christian belief systems.The Sunday of Orthodoxy marks not only the first day of Lent but the revival of Orthodox veneration of icons. Because the purpose of icons is to induce contemplation of the their subject matter, icon painters adhere to largely unchanged techniques and styles in order not to confound their own human interests with the aim of connecting the viewer to God; any deviations from these traditional approaches are seen as human contrivances obstructive to true worship, and the painting ceases to be an icon.

The Infinite

This is a concept central to Universalist thought, as it acknowledges that all religious traditions stem from a single source – a supreme being, an ultimate reality.The motivation of all religious devotion is to journey back to and be united with the Infinite, but Universalism argues that without acknowledging that its goal and thus the source of its belief is the same, no single religion can offer its followers this ultimate satisfaction. Instead, the intricacies of each separate belief system cloud the larger truth and keep believers mired in a cycle of false righteousness, their devotion misdirected. Hinduism in particular acknowledges the Infinite and its ultimate aim remains reunion with this supreme energy, though the achievement of this is less reliant on worldly matters than in some other traditions.

Kali Yuga

In Hindu scripture, the world is described as existing in a perpetual cycle of yugas, or season-like stages through which the universe travels from creation to destruction over one full day and night (believed to approximate variously 4.1 to 8.2 billion years) in the life of Brahman, the Supreme Being. There are four yugas: Satya,Treta, Dvapara and Kali, of which Earth is currently experi- encing the final, most destructive: the ‘age of vice’ or of the demon Kali, in which man strays ever further from Brahman. Morality in Hinduism is called dharma, and often repre- sented by a bull. During the first yuga, the bull has all four of its legs; as the cycle continues, the bull loses a leg with each new yuga until, during KaliYuga,it stands on only one leg.The Kali Yuga unleashes gross imbalances in power and privilege; a steady drain on the spiritual constitution of both the leaders and the led; environmental disharmony through the mass cultivation of wheat and barley; and a steady acceleration and acceptance of behaviour considered by most spiritual traditions to be amoral and socially destructive. According one interpretation, Kali Yuga began on 23 January 3102BC – when it is held that Krishna departed the Earth for his home – and is to last 432,000 years.This places our time firmly within Kali Yuga, however some scholars believe that we are still experiencing Dvapara Yuga, or that the cycle has completed and that we are in the early stages of the re-creative Satya Yuga.

Mary Magdalene

She was a disciple of Jesus, having been cleansed by him of ‘seven demons’, inter- preted sometimes as illnesses. However, as the number corresponds to the Deadly Sins, it has also been suggested (and subsequently refuted) that Mary was sinful, perhaps a prostitute. Whatever her previous circumstances, she became a close friend of Jesus, remaining with him at the cross after his other, male disciples had abandoned him, and supposedly being the first witness to his Resurrection.


Metaphysical thought is that which explores the nature of the physical world, what it means, and the implica- tions of this for what might be beyond it. One popular way of demonstrating the metaphysical approach is to ask, ‘What is there?’ and ‘What is it like?’, admitting philosophical questions relating to existence, identity, the cosmos, religion, spirituality, space, time and matter.

Mother Thekla

Marina Scharf (1918-2011) was born in the Caucasus and grew up in London. Her career as an English teacher was truncated when she met an Orthodox nun on a retreat, and felt called to a life of religious devotion. As Mother Thekla, she was the Abbess, founder and, finally, last remaining nun of the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption at Whitby, North Yorkshire. She and John Tavener met in 1986, and he describes the person who became a friend, a spiritual muse and a frequent collaborator as ‘the most remarkable woman I have ever met in my life.’ Highly intelligent, tempestuous and passionate about Orthodoxy,Thekla guided Tavener through his first attempts at merging his own original composition with the deep tradition of the Orthodox church. Mother Thekla translated and wrote many texts for Tavener’s works, and together they created, among many other works, Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987); Mary of Egypt (1991); The Apocalypse (1993); Song for Athene (1993); and Fall and Resurrection (1997).

Orthodox Tone System

Every Eastern Orthodox country has, over thousands of years, developed its own tone system – eight sets of sung melodies or hymns used in liturgical music and attached to specific services. Unlike in Western Christian services, the hymns are not interspersed throughout the service and sung by the congregation; they are instead intoned by a choir, but the congregation will be familiar with all the hymns and the services at which they should be performed. Music cannot be considered sacred in the Orthodox Church unless it adheres to the relevant tone system, and then the chosen tone must correlate to the subject matter, which must be liturgical.


Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muham- mad Balkhī) was a 13th- century Persian Sufi poet, mystic and theologian. At the core of his teaching was tawhid, a concept of union, or rather reunion, with’the beloved’ – the primal root of spirituality – from which man has been separated, and to which he must restore his being.This is a concept very similar to that of transcendent unity. His principal work was the Masnavi, a six-volume poem which remains fundamental to Sufi and Persian literature. John Tavener’s 2002 work Lament for Jerusalem makes particular use of the Masnavi, though during the latter part of his career, the composer has been more generally influenced by Rumi.

Frithjof Schuon

Though never an academic, the Swiss philosopher, meta- physician and author Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) was a Traditionalist acknowledged as an authority on comparative religion, his principle emphasis being the transcendent unity of all religions, a concept that proposes that all religious belief and practice is inspired by the same supreme universal governing force, however it may be called. Schuon’s writings had an enormous effect on Tavener’s spiritual direction during the 1990s, and al- though he remains an Orthodox Christian and later came to feel that Schuon had taken some elements of his philosophy too far, Tavener also became irrevocably convinced of the fundamental congruence of all belief systems.

States of Atma

The Sanskrit word, Ātman, originates from the root word et-men, a cognate of the Old English, Greek and German words meaning
States of Atma ‘to breathe’. In Hindu philosophy, Ātman is the true self, entirely distinct from the ego and in fact being identical to Brahman, variously described as the Supreme Being, the ultimate reality, or the transcendent self. Brahman is the universal force, and its earthly manifestation is the Ātman of each individual. In Hinduism, salvation can only be achieved through the realisation that one’s true self transcends the phenomenal (material) world and is identical with this transcendent self, which exists on the noumenal plane, that of ideas, senses and spiritual experience. Since the development of his interest in Univer- salism,Tavener has been strongly drawn to the concept of Ātman, and Towards Silence (2007) follows the four states of Atma, which areVaishvanara,the waking state;Taijasa,the dream state; Prajna, the condition of deep sleep; and Tunya, that which is beyond.The work may be superficially interpreted as a meditation on death, but refers rather to states of spiritual detachment from the physical world.

St John of the Cross

See ‘Carmelite Order’


Sufism is a facet of Islam, centred on the very internal, spiritual aspects of its teachings. Sufism has been described as being the precise, almost scientific, practice of healing and detaching one’s mind and heart from all but its love of God (Allah).’Sufism’ as a term originally referred simply to the internal- isation of the tenets of Islam, but gained followers until it developed an identity quite distinct from mainstream Islam. Principal characteristics of Sufi worship include asceticism – a lifestyle devoid of all but the most necessary of material and social inter- action – and dhikr, a form of prayer involving the repetition of the names of God, intended to focus one’s entire being on His worship. Tavener’s 2004 work, The Beautiful Names, is a representation of this practice.


Traditionalists emphasise a non-material approach to life and worship that internalises the fundamentals of religious belief, allowing the adherent to detach themselves from the concerns of human existence and focus on the ultimate truths common to all spiritual doctrines.Traditionalism places most importance on the preservation, through practice, of the essence of one or all belief systems, rather than the perpetuation of its varied interpretations across them. By raising intellectual arguments as to the detail and validity of different belief systems, these manifestations are felt to cloud the funda- mental meaning of this spiritual essence, rather than illuminating it.

Transcendent Unity

The Transcendent Unity of Religions is a 1984 work by Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon, in which is articulated the concept that at the centre of every religious tradition is the same esoteric core that both spawned and transcends the individual, literal interpretations that divide belief dystems.This idea of an ‘eternal religion’ supposedly passed from Plato down through centuries to Ananda Coomaraswamy and René Guénon, both significant influences on Schuon and consequently on Tavener.


The Upanishads is a collection of over 200 philosophical texts considered to be the basis of modern Hinduism.They are concerned primarily with Brahman – the Hindu concept of ultimate reality – and are a commentary on the Vedas, a larger collection constituting the oldest Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophical writings.The Upanishads are considered a distillation of the Vedas and form the basis of Vedantic thought, the word ‘Vedanta’ having originally been synonymous with the Upanishads.

Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary was the mother of Jesus Christ — the vessel into which God placed his earthly form to be mortally born.Thus, she is also the Mother of God. Mary was chosen by God to carry Jesus because, though conceived naturally she had herself been born ‘without stain’, or immaculata; it is Mary’s own conception which is known as the Immaculate Concep- tion, while her bearing of Jesus Christ is known as the Virgin Birth.