Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

John Tavener, Composer and Seeker, Dies at 69

00 Michael Taylor. Sir John Tavener. 12.11

Sir John Tavener

Michael Taylor

2001  

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British composer Sir John Tavener, whose career was boosted with the help of The Beatles and who often is remembered for the elegiac song performed as Princess Diana‘s coffin was carried out of Westminster Abbey, died Tuesday. He was 69. Tavener’s publisher, Chester Music, said he died at his home in Child Okeford, southern England. Born and trained in London, Tavener composed the beautiful Song for Athene… reworked as Songs of Angels… that caught the public’s mood at Diana’s funeral. His wistful elegant setting of William Blake’s poem The Lamb (1982) became a staple of Christmas carol services. Tavener once said, “I think there are an awful lot of artists around who’re very good at leading us into hell. I’d rather someone would show me the way to paradise”.

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An imposing figure, Tavener was strikingly tall… 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 metres)… thin, and wore his hair long. James Rushton, managing director of Chester Music, called Tavener “one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years. His large body of work… dramatic, immediate, haunting, remaining long in the memory of all who have heard it, and always identifiably his… is one of the most significant contributions to classical music in our times”. Quiet passages that seemed to shimmer like dawn light, and other-worldly intensity and moments of ecstasy distinguished Tavener’s music. He spoke of some compositions arriving instantaneously in his mind, saying in his 60th year, “If one is going to create this eternal celestial music, one has got to listen, to be silent, to hear the angel of inspiration dictate”.

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Tavener was born on 28 January 1944, into a music-loving family in North London. At an early age, he began to improvise and compose at the piano. As a teenage organist in a Presbyterian church, he conducted adventurous modern works including Michael Tippet’s A Child of Our Time, Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Abandoning an ambition to be a concert pianist, Tavener studied composition at London‘s Royal Academy of Music. His 1968 cantata The Whale brought him fame with the help of The Beatles, who released it on their Apple records label. Tavener said that he caught the attention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party by playing a tape of his opera, Notre Dames des Fleurs, inspired by Jean Genet’s novel about a prisoner’s sexual fantasies. The opera… which later became lost… featured obscene lyrics, a choir, and what Tavener called his “thunderous” performance on the organ. Lennon offered a recording deal the next day, Tavener said, but it needed another Beatle to get The Whale to market. Tavener said in a BBC interview, “It took Ringo, who’s a lot more pragmatic than John. Ringo actually brought out The Whale and Celtic Requiem. The Whale was a piece written by an angry young man … because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms”.

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Tavener’s later better-known works flowed from his conversion to Orthodox Christianity and his collaboration with Mother Thekla, a Russian émigré and Orthodox nun to whom he turned for support after his mother died in 1985. Thekla’s short The Life of St Mary of Egypt inspired his 1992 opera, Mary of Egypt, and she provided many of the librettos for other works. The fruits of their collaboration included The Protecting Veil in 1987, Song for Athene (1993), The Apocalypse (1993), Fall and Resurrection (1999), and We Shall See Him as He Is (1993). Tavener dedicated his book The Music Of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (1999) to Mother Thekla, saying, “she helped me put my music and my life together”. Their collaboration ended in the early years of the 21st century as Tavener’s interests spread beyond Orthodoxy to embrace the insights of other traditions. She died in 2011.

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His marriage in 1974 to Victoria Maragopoulou, a dancer, effectively ended after eight months, although they formally divorced only a decade later on grounds of non-consummation… Tavener later said that wasn’t true. Tavener suffered many health problems. He once said, “Almost every piece I write is, in a sense, kind of viewing death in different lights”. He had the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome, suffered a stroke at 30, and in 1991 had difficult surgery for a leaking aortic valve. Maryanna Schaefer jolted him out of his self-absorption, supported him in his recovery, and later became his wife in 1991. Tavener said in an interview for A Portrait, a Naxos recoding, “After that, I thought, what is this whole thing about my precious art? I can’t do this, I can’t have children, I can’t do that, and I can’t do the other thing because of my precious art. Suddenly, I thought… right, away with all this, this is total nonsense. This is living in the most ridiculously self-centred arrogant way. Of course I can have children”. The couple had two daughters, Theodora and Sofia, and a son, Orlando, who survive him.

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Tavener ranged widely in geography and spirituality in his pursuit of what he described as innocence. He said in an interview with Beliefnet, “I hear it in Sufi music with the ney flute. I see it in Coptic icons, in most traditional art, particularly art of the American Indian. I find the texts extraordinarily beautiful and very childlike and very simple”. The Veil of the Temple (2002), a seven-hour work to be performed overnight, was an attempt “to remove the veils that hide the same basic truth of all authentic religions”. He wrote in a programme note, “It begins for instance in the words of the Sufis, and ends in the Hindu world, with the Upanishad Hymn. The ‘Logos‘, that mysterious substance inside the Godhead, reveals itself in many forms, whether it be Christ, Krishna, or ‘the word made book’ in the form of the Quran“.

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He wrote many of the solo parts in his works for the Indian-born soprano Patricia Rozario. He was drawn, he said, to “the ecstatic quality of her voice”. He found something like that in the “savage, untamed quality” in the voice of Björk, the Icelandic pop star for whom he wrote Prayer of the Heart (2004). She also introduced him to an Apache medicine man; an encounter that Tavener said provoked a vision that night that “all traditions lead to the centre, which is God”. Prince Charles championed Tavener’s work, and the composer received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for services to music. Daniel Jaffe, reviews editor at the BBC Music Magazine, said, “He was an extraordinary British composer whose music will stand for some time”.

12 November 2013

Robert Barr

Jill Lawless

Associated Press

http://news.yahoo.com/john-tavener-composer-seeker-dies-69-175240574.html

 

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