John Tavener

1944 2013

John Tavener



In 1987, Tavener’s reputation was revived, surprisingly with an orchestral work, The Protecting Veil for solo cello and string orchestra (1987), a lengthy piece inspired by the Orthodox feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. This work built his confidence in the instrumental genre and he went on to composeThe Hidden Treasure (1989), The Repentant Thief for clarinet and strings (1990), The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1991), the orchestral Theophany (1993) and Diodia (1997). Apocalypse (1992) was composed in Greece; this ‘thundering vision of the end’ was written with the help of Mother Thekla. When Tavener listened back on this work he could “hear the influence of Messiaen and strangely Bruckner, whose ninth symphony has so profoundly moved me recently.”

Header image courtesy of Music Sales Classical Other images courtesy of the BBC and Grammy

Sir John Tavener was a 20th century British composer who was deeply influenced by religious themes, especially by the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. His works earned him a knighthood in 2000.

Tavener learned to play and improvise at the piano at a young age. He studied piano, organ and composition at Highgate school and was introduced to many composers such as Purcell, Humperdinck, Mozart, Stravinsky, Bruckner, Victoria, Mussorgsky, Handel and Bach. Tavener recalled, “I spent all my spare time in my childhood listening to records I collected from a shop in Willesden.”

Two of his early works, Credo (1961) and Genesis (1962) were performed at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is Frognal, Hampstead where his father was organist. He himself was appointed organist in 1961, at the age of 15, at St John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington.

One year later, he entered the Royal Academy of Music where he studied piano with Solomon and composition with Lennox Berkeley and later Lumsdaine. Berkley’s influence can be heard in works such as the Donne Sonnets, whereas Lumsdaine’s influence pertains to the introduction of the language of modernism, as found in the works of Messiaen and Boulez.

While still a student, his one-act opera The Cappemakers (1964) and his song cycleThree Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1962) were premiered. He also won the Prince Rainier III of Monaco Prize for his cantataCain and Abel (1965). His compositionThe Whale (1966) was premiered by the London Sinfonietta, and brought about much public interest. Tavener’s brilliant use of collage techniques in combination with recitation, romantic gestures and ritual objectivity, as made popular by Stravinsky, roused the interest of the Beatles, who later recorded the work on their label.

In the 1970s, Tavener’s music caused an uproar within the Orthodox Church. He had attempted to compose a liturgy for the Russian Orthodoxy, but as he was unfamiliar with the traditions or the sacred tones, he was accused of just bringing his own music to the church. This experience led to an inner dilemma, as he strived to write truly sacred music. This failure led him to take a short break from composing to study Znamenny and Byzantine chant.

During this decade and into the 1990s, icons of the Mother of God played an important role in his works, one of which was The Protecting Veil. His second string quartet,The Last Sleep of the Virgin (1990) was the result of a dream he had just before undergoing major heart surgery.

Tavener’s In alium (1968) provides insight into his more sentimental side and shows Messiaen’s influence. The work, first performed at the Proms, consists of settings of texts from the Bible and Charles Péguy. This, along with one of his next worksCeltic Requiem (1969), explores stasis and non-developmental block construction, which become increasingly important in his works. The latter of the two works combines rites for the dead with children’s games, always accompanied by the same chord. These works look forward to his later use of drones and modal harmonic stasis.

The Ultimos ritos (1972), Tavener’s largest work until that point, incorporates two of his smaller pieces,Coplas (1970) and Nomine Jesu (1970). This meditation on the words of St John of the Cross and on the Crucifixion makes use of space, particularly of the St Bavokerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands where it was first performed; the performers are to form a cross at the end of the performance. The work also makes use of early Spanish music and an unrecognizable use of Bach. From this work onwards, the influence of late Stravinsky becomes more notable in Tavener’s works, replacing the importance of Messiaen. This is also notable in his interest in earlier music.

Other works from this period include Canciones españolas (1972), In Stravinsky (1971), Responsorium in Memory of Annon Lee Silver (1971) and the Requiem for Father Malachy(1973). The Canciones españolas contain medieval Spanish cantigas while the liturgicalRequiem for Father Malachy and its smaller version, Little Requiem(1972), show his preoccupation with the rites of death and plainchant.

Tavener’s opera Thérèse (1973-6) was composed over several years, and premiered even later, in 1979, at which point Tavener was no longer concerned with the same musical approach. The opera, which was received with hostility, features dense orchestration and an Expressionist dramatic approach along with strenuous vocal lines which convey a strong spiritual message.

Tavener’s conversion to Orthodoxy in the late 1970s deeply impacted the direction of his compositions, as the liturgical music from the church became increasingly important; its influence can already be heard inCanticle of the Mother of God (1976), a setting of the Magnificat.

Another theme constant in his works is morality, which is evident earlier in works such as theCeltic Requiem, Ultimos ritos and the Requiem for Father Malachy. It is with his Akhmatova: Requiem (1979-80) that Tavener is able to combine his use of serialism and liturgical elements.

In the 1980s Tavener produced a series of sacred choral music including Funeral Ikos (1981) and The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete (1981). These works, along with his secular song cycleSappho: Lyrical Fragments (1980), show his increasing preoccupation with Greek culture. Other works from this period includeIkon of Light for choir and string trio (1984) and Vigil Service (1984), which is one of the pioneering works for the development of the English Orthodox music tradition.

After the Sappho song cycle, Tavener composed three more settings using secular texts in the 1980s,Sixteen Haiku of Seferis (1984) and two Yeats cycles, To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1983) and A Mini Song Cycle for Gina  (1984). These cycles show the influence of late Britten and Shostakovich.

Texts play an important role in Tavener’s music, especially religious texts. Up until the 1980s, his concern was primarily on vocal and liturgical music never purely instrumental music. The early 1980s brought aboutTrisagion (1981) for brass ensemble,Mandelion (1981) for organ and Towards the Son (1982).