This post John Tavener was written by Dr. Hugh Benham, writer, composer, and choir director of St. Boniface church in Chandler’s Ford.
I interviewed Dr. Hugh Benham last year in this post: Concert, Life And Passion.
Hugh celebrated the life of the brilliant composer Sir John Tavener with us.
John Tavener, by Hugh Benham:
The celebrated composer of sacred music, Sir John Tavener, died in November 2013, about two months short of his 70th birthday. He was one of few recent composers of ‘classical’ music whose name is widely known.
Tavener came to public notice in the 1960s, with The Whale, a work based on the story of Jonah. This appeared on the Apple record label, thanks to the Beatles, and temporarily gained him a kind of pop-star status. Tavener caught the public imagination again in 1997 as the composer of a piece sung in the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales. This was Song for Athene (‘Alleluia. May flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest’), originally composed after the tragic death in 1993 of the young actress Athene Hariades. His choral work A New Beginning was performed at the Dome at the start of the new millennium.
However the intensely spiritual character of Tavener’s music is far more significant than his associations with celebrities or big public events. This spirituality stems from his Christian faith, and specifically from the Greek Orthodox tradition. His music rarely makes concessions to contemporary popular taste, but has touched many who would not consider themselves believers.
John Tavener was born in London, and attended Highgate School at the same time as a more familiar name in Anglican church music circles, John Rutter. Latterly he lived in rural Dorset with his wife and family, although he was seriously restricted for many years by cardio-vascular problems.
It was a great privilege for me to attend Tavener’s funeral in Winchester Cathedral in late November. The service, much of it in Greek and almost all sung, was deeply impressive both musically and liturgically, with His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain presiding. There was no eulogy – the music spoke far more powerfully than any spoken tribute could have done. It was both surprising and gratifying that BBC South Today devoted more than two minutes at the start of their local news to a report of the service.
Much of Tavener’s music has been recorded, and a good deal is available freely online. For example, Google ‘Song for Athene’ or ‘Tavener The Lamb’.
Finally, here are two quotes from Tavener for us to ponder:
“I cannot disconnect religion and music.”
“So much western music is created in this world and leaves you in this world. The music of the East is written not so much with the world in mind, and it takes you somewhere else.”
Words by Sir John Tavener
This article also appears in the February 2014 edition of the Parish News, of Parish of Chandler’s Ford.