Sir John Tavener (born 1944), a contemporary British composer, is perhaps the most prominent Orthodox composer in the Western world today. Sometimes described as a "minimalist", he is a descendant of the English choral composer and organist John Taverner (1495-1545). Bringing Orthodox tradition to bear on his own work, he speaks of his music as being "icons in sound."
Early Life and Work
Presbyterian by birth, Tavener was born into a religious family. On a music scholarship he studied piano and organ at London's Highgate School and then at the Royal Academy of Music. In the 1960s, while desiring to make a name as a concert pianist, he was also serving as organist of a Presbyterian church in Kensington. Tavener burst onto the wider contemporary classical music scene in 1968 when his cantata The Whale was performed by the London Sinfonietta. Soon The Whale was heard by Ringo Starr and the Beatles decided to add it to their Apple recording label. Soon other of his works were also released, such as Celtic Requiem and Nomine Jesu. In 1969 he became professor of musical composition at Trinity College. Tavener's early work reflects much 20th century innovation and iconoclasm. In 1977 this was to radically change.
Conversion to Orthodoxy and Subsequent Work
In 1977 Tavener converted to Orthodoxy, joining the Russian Church in Britain, having first been introduced to Orthodoxy in Greece through his first wife. Since 1991, the English nun Mother Thekla has been his spiritual mentor and has contributed some of the texts of his many works.
Some of his prominent works since becoming Orthodox include The Akathist of Thanksgiving, written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church, The Protecting Veil and Song For Athene (sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales). After Diana's death in 1997 he composed Eternity's Sunrise, based on poetry of William Blake, and dedicated it to her memory.
In 2003 Tavener composed his monumental work The Veil of the Temple (performed by four choirs, several orchestras and soloists, lasting seven hours) based upon texts from the book "Medieval and Renaissance Serbian Poetry 1200-1700" written by Predrag R. Dragić Kijuk. While his early music was influenced by late Stravinsky, often invoking the sound world of the Requiem Canticles and A Sermon, A Narrative and a Prayer, his recent music is spare, uses wide registral space, and is often diatonically tonal. Some commentators see a similarity to the works of Arvo Pärt, from the obvious common religious tradition to the technical details of phrase lengths, diatonicism, and coloristic percussion effects. Messiaen is also arguably a strong influence throughout his career.
John Tavener was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to music in the 2000. He is a friend of Charles, the prince of Wales, who himself has drawn on the spirituality of the Orthodox Church and is a frequent pilgrim to Mount Athos. In honor of the prince, Tavener wrote a setting of the "Many Years" in honor of his 50th birthday.
For inspiration, Tavener drinks from a deep well, which includes a wide variety of sources. Father Seraphim Rose, Elizabethan poet John Donne, Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, Greek folk traditions, William Blake and Dostoyevsky are all drawn on, in addition to the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
Some material for this entry is taken from the Wikipedia article of the same name.
- John Tavener on BBC Music Profiles
- Biography on the Schirmer Music Website
- Biography on the Chester/Novello Music Website
- A Tavener Site maintained by Simon Crutchley
For Further Reading
- Geoffrey Haydon, John Tavener: Glimpses of Paradise (Gollancz, 1995)
- Brian Keeble, ed. The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament (Faber & Faber, 1999)
- John Tavener (with Mother Thekla), Ikons (HarperCollins, 1994)