JOHN TAVENER (1944 - 2013)
Throughout his career, Sir John Tavener was a unique and influential figure in the contemporary music scene. From his days as an audacious young composer at the forefront of the avant-garde movement in the late sixties and seventies, through to his latter-day rejection of many of the standard aesthetic principles on which the Western classical music tradition is based, he seemed to have caused controversy in whichever direction he moved.
John Kenneth Tavener was born in London in 1944 and educated at the Royal Academy of Music with Lennox Berkeley as his tutor in composition. He was still at college when he won the prestigious Prince Rainier of Monaco Prize in 1965 with his cantata Cain and Abel. He was closely linked with religious music, and his catalogue of works includes three Requiems. Later in his career he moved towards sacred orchestral works, of which his score for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, entered the world of 20th century ‘pop’ classics.
He was influenced by Stravinsky but developed a very personal style that embraced his own concept of melodic minimalism. Within the field of sacred music Tavener developed a style whereby he used what appeared to be a traditional theme, which on closer examination was seen to have been his own. He was criticised for his lack of a distinct purpose in the progress of his career, while envied by those who see him as one of the most commercially successful composers of his time. That success was greatly furthered when his sacred work Song for Athene was sung at the funeral ceremony of Princess Diana.
On the surface, he seemed like a figure of contradiction: on one hand, he moved in the austere world of royalty and religious institutions; on the other, he was seen communing in a glamorous world of film and pop stars. His critics have jumped on these apparent paradoxes to denounce Tavener as a carefully and cleverly manufactured PR product, but this is a superficial judgment. All his paths were taken with the utmost integrity and conviction, and unified by one consistent, obsessive goal: a desire to find what is true in the deepest sense of the word. Different people and different traditions refer to this truth by different names, but whether you call it salvation, the soul, nirvana, cosmic consciousness or simply the ‘essence’ of life Tavener’s one and only aim was to bring himself and his audiences closer to an ultimate truth through his music.
Tavener moved from an ‘Orthodox’ towards a Universalist view in which all religions are seen as equally valid. Throughout his career there were many influences, not only from different religious traditions but from secular sources as well. The unifying factor between them all was not any one particular tradition; it was the desire to express truth and beauty through his music.
Tavener’s view was that we live in an over-intellectualised society in which the strong emphasis placed on issues that feed the ego, such as academic success, money and achievement—all the things on which our society is based—has distanced us from who or what we really are, from the ‘essence’ of life. Few would disagree that the increasing importance placed on image in Western countries tends towards a shallower, dumbed-down society. Tavener applied this viewpoint on a wider scale. For him, the downward spiral started with the Renaissance. In musical terms, he acknowledged the genius of masters like Beethoven and Wagner, though he found the sophistication and ‘clever’ techniques of the music lacking in this essence. This view may seem outrageous to many music lovers, but it was a view which struck a strong chord with his own philosophy, and it was this belief that led him to write music which had an extremely significant impact on the industry. With this in mind, if one looks at Tavener’s career as a whole, it can be seen as a process of unlearning.
From his early, complex works, he gradually pared down his music, removing the intellectual systems and techniques to get as near as he could to a state where only the ‘essence’ remains. This made him unpopular with the critics, but it was his firm and absolute conviction that this was the right direction for him. Once, when accused of his music having no substance, he retorted ‘But I’m not interested in substance; it’s the essence of the music that counts!’ Given the popularity of his music, and his long-standing success, it is difficult to deny that he had a point.
Sir John Tavener died on 12 November 2013.