“I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God. That’s what I have always tried to do.” In these terse words, composer Sir John Tavener summed up his life’s work.
Tavener wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful music of the last three decades. He wanted each of his works to express something of God – even his instrumental works are based on texts that express faith, although the listener may never realize this. His choral works are often actual prayers, such as “Song for Athene,” written for a young woman who died in a cycling accident (it was later performed at Princess Diana’s funeral).
Tavener first came to public attention when his raucous 1968 opera The Whale was released by the Beatles’ record label after he met John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party. Then in 1977, he experienced a conversion, becoming a devout Christian in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and his music changed. As he explained, “I started to question what on earth happened to Western civilization and why the sacred seems to have been pushed out gradually by the domination of the ego.” An admirer of Mozart and Stravinsky from childhood on, he strove (in the words of his friend Steven Isserlis) for “purity and simplicity.”
Taverner’s music is soaring and chant-influenced – “ethereal” is a favorite description by critics. But he had only disgust for spirituality he judged facile or fake. In this respect, he was his own harshest critic: “The thing I regret most about my life are those inane photos of me with icons. They used to come down here and dress me up, and I just tolerated it. It’s my fault. But I shouldn’t have done it. They literally brought down costumes, candles and icons! It was unbelievable stupidity.”
Tavener’s ruthless honesty is what sets him apart from the purveyors of commercialized “music for meditation,” whether Christian or new-age. “John wasn’t writing to please people,” notes Isserlis. One could add that he wasn’t writing to please himself, either – he lamented the self-involved individualism of much modern music. Who then was he writing to please?
After his death, the Guardian published a letter recounting how Tavener had composed In One Single Moment, to be performed by a choir of twenty inmates in a prison. The ten-minute work tells the story of the thief whom Jesus invites to paradise as they both hang on the cross: “Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” (This Scripture – Luke 23:42 – is one Tavener seems to have returned to often, as he set it to music repeatedly.)
The packed audience of inmates in the prison chapel applauded the work enthusiastically, slapping the thin, six-foot-six Tavener on the back so heartily that he almost fell. Tavener stood grinning among them. He had written the piece, as he told collaborators, in the hope that these men would find faith.
For the last six years of his life, Tavener was crippled and in constant pain. Already suffering from Marfan syndrome, a congenital disease that affected his heart, eyes, and muscles, he suffered a series of heart attacks which he barely survived. He commented, “The big danger of Marfan is that you can suffer a rupture at any time, and you go quickly. So I suppose I live with the thought of death very much in front of me.”
Last July, he told an interviewer that he had learned to be grateful for his suffering from the disease. “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”
A week before Tavener’s death, Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless. Photographs of orphaned children and desperate parents filled the newspapers in which his obituaries appeared.
Since Tavener was a man whose life was shaped by both pain and faith, it is fitting that the prayers which he set to music are needed now by the suffering people of our world. No doubt he would be thankful if today we would use his music for that purpose.