Sir John Tavener: 1944 - 2013

Published 13 November 2013
John Tavern

British Christian composer Sir John Tavener went home to receive his reward on Tuesday. He was 69.

Tavener's publisher, Chester Music, said he died at his home in Child Okeford, southern England.

Jan. 27 2011 file photo of Sir Paul McCartney, left, with British composer Sir John Tavener who has died at the age of 69
Known as one of Britain's finest composers, Tavener's music is known largely through two major events.

First, he was the only 'art composer' signed by the Beatles' Apple Records in 1968. Tavener was only 22 at the time. The composition Apple Records released was an oratorio based on the Biblical story of Jonah called "The Whale."

The second event-known the world over-was the use of his composition "Song For Athene" at Princess Diana's 1997 funeral in Westminster Abbey.

These two events, however, are only a fragment of the beauty, mystery, and artistic sensibility Tavener brought to the world. In the wonderful book, "John Tavener: The Music of Silence", Tavener outlines his musical thought and growth.

From an aspiring organist in the Presbyterian Church of his youth, to the world-wide attention of his later compositions performed by luminaries such as Yo-Yo Ma, Tavener points to the fact that his music has always had Christian themes. Tavener once remarked that he wanted his music to lead people to paradise.

Tavener, who was strikingly tall - 6 feet 6 inches - thin, and wore his hair long, later converted to the Orthodox faith, a decision that greatly influenced his music and life: from frequent trips to Greece to study with Orthodox priest and nuns, to settings of the Orthodox Mass, his Christian journey played a vital role in all he did.

On a personal note, I've been an admirer of Tavener's for years. I recently listened to a performance of one of his compositions entitled-of all things - "Funeral Canticle" at our local museum. I wrote about my observations in an article for ANS news called, "God Goes to the Museum".

In the article, I point out that Tavener wrote notes concerning the piece. In these notes he states, the "Funeral Canticle was written in loving memory of my father. Such was his love and life and people that he constantly surprised us by rallying round when he was thought to be at the point of death. So I wrote this work during the last year of my father's life."

I then give greater insight by quoting writer Jeremy Grimshaw. "'.The Funeral Canticle is more explicitly religious, having been prepared for the interdenominational funeral service that his father had requested. Its texts include the kliros from the traditional Orthodox funeral service.  As is the case with many of Tavener's other works, an overarching motto permeates the piece. Here, it is a solemn chant in Greek: 'Remember eternal things.'"

And finally, noticing the audience's response to the canticle in the museum, I conclude: "As I looked around the room at people listening to the performance, I couldn't help but think that God was saying, "Remember eternal things."

"The tranquil beauty of the music, mixed with the larger message of the piece was communicating something transcendent, a reminder that there is more to life than what is before our eyes.

In a way, Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" was causing us to ask the big questions of life, to ask what it means to be human; to ponder the eternal."

And what is true of Tavener's Canticle that I heard in the museum is largely present in much of his work. In all, he causes us to "remember eternal things."

In the final paragraph of the above-mentioned book, "The Music of Silence," editor, Brian Keeble, summarizes Tavener's musical quest as follows: "The young John Tavener joined no school, albeit he was certainly heir to this innovatory spirit, only to discover that it did not accord with his essentially religious imagination. He subsequently spent twenty years divesting himself and his music of this legacy. Other voices have summoned him. The spiritual dynamic of the 'intellective organ of the heart' empowers trajectories of joy, sorrow, beauty, love compassion, awe, and reverence that surmount the limited sphere of egocentric sensibility. At such trajectories the music of John Tavener is aimed."

I like that: "other voices have summoned him." Now these "other voices"-the voice of God-has called him home; the place of his desire-a trajectory filled with joy, beauty, love, and awe.

How I pray we all aim for such heights!

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