Voices from Russia

Monday, 25 November 2013

John Tavener: An Obituary

00 Requiescat in Pace. 19.11.12

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John Tavener, born on 28 January 1944, one of the leading composers of his generation, died on 12 November, aged 69. Tavener’s music underwent a transformation. In his youth, when he had something of the playboy image about him, the Beatles championed him, but his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy led him to write works that were contemplative and spiritual by nature. Like many composers, Tavener’s career had its highs and lows. The première of his rhapsody for cello and strings, The Protecting Veil, at the Promenade concerts in 1989 became one of the best-selling classical recordings ever. However, that was only nine years after a requiem he wrote, based on poems about the victims of Stalin, provoked a steady stream of people to head for the exit at the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms.

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Tavener was an instantly-recognisable figure. At 6ft 6in, he sported shoulder-length, blond hair and had skin like parchment. Sadly, he suffered ill-health throughout his adult life. As a child, he learned to play the piano without formal tuition. He spent his summer holidays in Sussex, where at the age of 12 he went to Glyndebourne and heard Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum ad honorem Sancti Marci Nominis (Canticle to Honour the Name of St Mark), which he regarded as the pinnacle of 20th-century music, “The piece woke me up and made me want to be a composer”.

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From 1962, he attended the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied composition under Lennox Berkeley. He first came to prominence with an oratorio, The Whale, based on the biblical story of Jonah. It had its first performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968 during the inaugural concert of the London Sinfonietta. The work required eight percussionists, who had to move between drums, bells, gongs, a football rattle, and amplified metronomes. For five minutes, the score allowed the musicians to play whatever they wanted. This captivated the Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, and his colleague, John Lennon, arranged for its recording on the group’s record label, Apple.

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Tavener joined the Orthodox Church in 1977. He wanted to write an accompaniment to an eighth-century liturgical poem, but first he had to get permission from one of the translators, Mother Thekla, the abbess of a Greek Orthodox monastery in North Yorkshire. In time, she provided the libretti of several of his works. On his 50th birthday in 1994, the BBC devoted four days to a festival of Tavener’s works, transmitted from Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, and the Barbican. In 1997, his Song for Athene was part of the Westminster Abbey funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. One of his short works débuted in the Millennium Dome on New Year’s Eve, 1999; a larger scale oratorio, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, received its first performance in St Paul’s Cathedral in 2000.

25 November 2013

Richard Anthony Baker

The Stage

http://www.thestage.co.uk/features/obituaries/2013/11/john-tavener/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=john-tavener

 

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