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John Tavener, 1944-2013

3:03 PM, Nov 13, 2013 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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There's a black and white photo, a little grainy and slightly out of focus, of Igor Stravinsky greeting Mstislav Rostropovich at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in June 1964. Standing in the background in the upper left hand corner is a tall lanky figure, a 20-year-old music student named John Tavener. Also in the photo, just to the right, is John's brother Roger who was friendly with Ringo Starr. Roger had done some building work on Ringo's house.

Life is, if nothing else, serendipity.

John Tavener, who died on November 12 at the age of 69 at his home in Dorset in south west England, would see his illustrious career as a composer launched by the Beatles. Ringo admired Tavener's first great work, "the Whale," an avant-garde cantata for orchestra and chorus loosely based on the biblical allegory of Jonah and Whale and premiered in London in 1968. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had dinner with Tavener one evening in Kensington and it was decided, almost immediately, that "the Whale" would be released by the Beatles on their Apple label later that same year.

In Britain, Tavener is celebrated as one of the country's finest composers of the last half century. Fellow composer John Rutter told BBC Radio 3 that Tavener "was absolutely touched by genius at every point". The two had known each other since childhood, having attended Highgate school together in northern London.

Tavener's other well-known works include his setting of William Blake's poem "The Lamb" and "A New Beginning," which was selected to ring in the new century at the end of 1999 in the Millennium Dome in London. His most famous composition, "Song for Athene," was performed at the funeral service of Diana at Westminster Abbey in September 1997. Prince Charles was a long-time friend and supporter. Tavener was one of those rare composers whose work could appeal both to serious musicians and general public alike.

I first met Tavener by phone. He had agreed to a commission by the Legatum Institute as part of our cultural offering. I rang and asked for Sir John (he has been knighted in 2000 for his musical achievements). A soft voice answered at the other end, "This is John." As I got to know him, I was surprised by his warmth and complete lack of pretension. His public persona, at least to me, had projected schoolmasterly aloofness and austerity. John Tavener was nothing of the sort. 

Tavener's legacy is a body of work that is, however, an intense expression of a very serious man who was possessed by a deep spirituality. Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and said once that "my way towards God has been to write music." I heard him say, to the question of what kind of music he liked listening to, "only things that offer me an alternative way of thinking about reality." His music has been described as neo-medieval, mystical, and minimalist. During his life, Tavener explored other religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam, but was left touched throughout by Orthodox Christianity.

He traveled frequently to Greece over the years to meet poets and other creative-types. It was there that he met his wife Maryanne through a mutual friend and painter. He had many influences, but Tavener loved the music of Stravinsky, himself a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tavener wrote a short piece for chamber organ, two alto flutes and hand bells in memory of the great Russian composer who died in 1971. 

Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," with its wild percussive elements, its stress and dissonance, surely inspired Tavener's approach in "the Whale." In an improvised section ‘In The Belly,' the score instructs the choir to: “clap hands, neigh, grunt, snort, yawn, make vomiting noises, whisper, cough, shuffle, hum and talk to each other — in any order”. Tavener also augments traditional orchestra and chorus in "the Whale" by non-musical instruments such as a whip and a football rattle. In 2004, Tavener said: “The Whale is a piece written by an angry young man. I was angry because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms." 

By the last year of his life that anger had faded.

I came to Tavener through my friend and former music teacher Robert Shafer, the Washington area conductor and composer whose City Choir of Washington and chorus at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music premiered the work Shafer and I commissioned together. The "Three Hymns of George Herbert," heard by a sell-out audience at Washington National Cathedral last April, were anything but the expression of an angry man. Wrote Anne Midgette, chief music critic for the Washington Post, in her review of the concert:

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