Three Holy Sonnets, 1962, 15' Soloists and orchestra
Ultimos Ritos, 1972, 50' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Akhmatova Requiem, 1980, 50' Soloists and large ensemble
Akhmatova Songs, 1993, 20' Solo voice and small ensemble
Lament for Jerusalem, 2002, 50' Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Supernatural Songs, 2003, 30' Soloists and orchestra
Schuon Lieder, 2003, 60' Solo voice and small ensemble
Tavener had throughout his life an abiding appreciation of poetry, much of which either found its way directly into his settings for voice, or influenced other works. It offers, by definition, the interaction of words with rhythm and sound, a quality Tavener relished marrying with music.Though naturally inclined toward contemplation of philosophy and art, Tavener had little time for that which does not concern the sacred (though this is a broader field than its connotations often admit) and claimed to enjoy the writings of only three novelists, each of whom shared his Orthodox faith: the Russians Fyodor Dostoevsky and ‘the monumental’ Leo Tolstoy, and the Greek Alexandros Papadiamantis, himself often referred to as the Greek Dostoevsky.
Beyond fiction, Tavener’s tastes tended toward the writings of metaphysicians such as René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Charles Péguy, Adi Shankara, Ibn Arabi and, significantly for a time, Frithjof Schuon. When such metaphysical ideas are expressed poetically, the emotional and musical response is yet more immediate; in distilling its subject to the point of beauty, poetry is capable of lending a sacred dimension to even the lowliest human traits, and many works set by Tavener deal with mortality, suffering, redemption and transcendence. Among the earliest of these are three sonnets by John Donne dealing with mortality, sin, faith and failure. Though only 15 at the time of its setting, Tavener was drawn to Donne’s paradoxically passionate austerity, a quality common to much of the poetry he would be inspired to set over the coming decades. On being introduced to Catholicism, Tavener became enraptured by the poetry of St John of the Cross, with its themes of transcendent love; following his conversion to Orthodoxy, he set works by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, as well as those by modern Greek poets C.P.Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos and Giorgios Seferis and the saints Symeon the New Theologian and Andrew of Crete; while Western, sometimes secular writers whose poems have provided a platform for Tavener’s music include Dante Alighieri, T.S.Eliot, William Blake, Frithjof Schuon, Jean Biès and W.B.Yeats, who the composer described as ‘the supreme artist of the 20th century’. During Tavener’s latter Universalist years, the Sufi poet Rumi was a great source of inspiration.
Tavener always endeavoured to set texts in their original forms, believing that a language binds any concept it originates to its cultural context. He therefore set an extraordinary variety of tongues, including Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew and Native American languages.