The composer John Tavener is dead. Known for his strikingly gaunt physical features – which resulted from the same genetic condition that eventually killed him – and strong Orthodox Christian faith, Tavener stands among the greatest British composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and is one of the few recent composers whose works have become part of the contemporary discourse. He was only sixty-nine.
When we talk about Tavener, we usually mean the latter version. In the 1960s, the young Tavener was the British Invasion of classical music. A friend of the Beatles and on their record label, his early music was chaotic, eclectic, and hyper-modernistic. Tavener’s conversion, from weakly Presbyterian to zealously Eastern Orthodox, brought him into his second phase as a composer, in which he emphasized space, simplicity, even silence – a stark contrast to his earlier works – and the minimalist style for which he is best known today.
Tavener’s Orthodoxy was almost too Orthodox, as he flung himself fully into its mysticism and the Eastern liturgy, both of which became the primary source of all the music he wrote up to his death. His detractors point both to Tavener’s inability to compose far away from his beloved Church and to his ‘failing away’ in recent years when he began integrating other religious traditions into his music, especially Hindu and Buddhist. And rightfully so, but wrongly judged: Tavener wrote music, much like Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt, with the understanding that Christian truth can be found in all things, seeing no contradiction in simultaneously holding tightly to his Church and freely exploring the world.
Being a composer (and I commit this fallacy willingly as I myself am a composer), Tavener was likely unable or unwilling to separate his inner and outer worlds, or even see them as separable. His image was reflected in his musical creations, putting him at risk of being misunderstood or too understood, and he seemed unhindered by this and kept writing music until near his death. All that is left of Tavener is memory and music. Through listening we can get glimpses of who he was and, if we listen closely and well enough, a glimpse of the truths that Tavener hoped for in life and now has in death.
I first heard Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ two years ago at a Compline service at Christ Church in Rochester, NY. This piece came to him while he was attending the funeral of Athene, a young half-Greek girl who had died in a cycling accident. Tavener’s spiritual guide, Mother Thekla, arranged the text – a combination of excerpts from Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral liturgy. The work is most famous for being performed at Princess Diana’s funeral.
That evening in Rochester, as the soprano section – a group that walked across the street from the Eastman School of Music each Sunday evening to sing the service – soared through the candle-lit sanctuary to the top of the work’s climactic chord, I felt emptied. And then, as the drone began again in the basses, free to be filled. Free to live in this chaotic, eclectic world. Free to have peace in life and in death. I was sung to a temporary rest as Tavener recently was sung to his eternal rest. Alleluia.
Listen to ‘Song for Athene’ by John Tavener.