John Tavener is one of the most triumphant composers of religious choral masterpieces in the modern day classical music scene. Some of his most famous works can be characterized with a large religious, spiritual and mystic elements that have not only impacted the type and quality of his music but has also affected his life. Tavener’s unique and eclectic personality often filters through the niches in his work and techniques, such as his use of odd yet forceful combinations of instruments and vocals.
Born in Wembley, London on January 28, 1944, Tavener studied music and composition at the Highgate School and was an active part of the choir. Through this position he had his first contact with music on a professional level and this gave him the opportunity to gain vital choral experience. He began composing and playing piano while in school and in 1961 he became the organist and choirmaster for the St John’s Presbyterian Church in Kensington. The subsequent year, Tavener joined the Royal Academy of Music and came under the tutelage of the prestigious English composer, Lennox Berkeley.
The year 1968 marked Tavener’s official entrance in to the lime light when his cantata, ‘The Whale’, premiered. This piece was a vivid and rather brilliant depiction of the story of Jonah as told by the Old Testament and it landed him an offer from Apple Records. They officially released ‘The Whale’ in 1970 was followed by another particularly impressive piece titled ‘The Celtic Requiem’. A major influence on his later works, was his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. This influence is highlighted in a couple of works such as ‘A Gentle Spirit’ and ‘The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’.
In Tavener’s later works, there was a noticeable element of diversity and eclecticism. This trend is consistent with reports from British media that speak of Tavener’s exploration of various cultures and religious traditions. For instance, his ‘Akhmatova Requiem’ and ‘Sixteen Haiku of Seferis’ are reflective of his indulgence in Russian and Greek cultures. Similarly, recent pieces such as ‘The Veil of the Temple’, one of his largest work, and ‘The Beautiful Names’, depicts Tavener’s study of several religious texts. However, his new found universalist approach did not diminish his loyalty towards orthodoxy, he continued writing works dedicated to his church such as ‘The Akathist of Thanksgiving’, written to celebrate the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church and ‘Orthodox Vigil Service’.
Tavener wrote some of his most famous works based on the texts of and in collaboration with Mother Thekla, an abbess who had long accompanied him as his spiritual advisor. These include ‘The Protecting Veil’, ‘Song For Athene’ and ‘Let’s Begin Again’. These pieces were some of his most heavily recorded works and were released by very famous labels such as Virgin Classics and drove him to the prime of his popularity. ‘Song For Athene’ was particularly prominent and received worldwide recognition since it was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana of Wales.
At the age of 69, John Tavener passed away on the 12 November 2013, in Child Okeford, Dorset. As a child he was inspired by the works of Mozart and especially Stravinsky and so decided to become a composer and blessed the genre of religious music. His contribution to music was highly cherished and this fact was especially evident at his funeral, when several prominent figures such as John Rutter and Prince Charles of Wales paid tribute to him.