I was sad yesterday to read of the death of British composer John Tavener, at the too-young age of 69. Tavener wrote a lot of liturgical music, which is mostly how I know of him, though I have not sung a lot of it myself. He also wrote much more, in a wide variety of genres. I didn't know that he had suffered from ill health for many years: an early stroke, Marfan's syndrome, and a heart attack in 2007 from which he nearly died and which left him with compromised breathing and constant pain.
Critics called Tavener a "holy minimalist," a dismissive term that makes me suspect the writers simply didn't understand the composer or his motivation. There's an appreciative obituary in The Guardian which tries to present Tavener, instead, in his wholeness:
"Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way. Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I've got," he said. But Tavener seemed to find a joy in that difficult truth.
At its best, Tavener's music is a cathartic confrontation with the biggest of all life's questions. Yet, like the man who wrote it, the music invites you into its world with charm, gentleness, humility, and a twinkle in the eye.
And in this interview, conducted for The Telegraph just two weeks ago, Tavener speaks about mortality, creativity, and how his illness has allowed him to re-engage with Western music and with poetry; his new work, Three Shakespearean Sonnets, will be performed in Southwark Cathedral later this month by the South Iceland Chamber Choir. How I wish I coud be there!
Yesterday, listening to some video clips, I watched the entire end of Princess Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey. (This version, blessedly, has no narration, though you'll have to skip an ad at the beginning.) Tavener's Song for Athene was sung as the casket was borne from the cathedral; when the procession reaches the door, they pause, and the Abbey bells begin to peal while the organist plays Bach. That jarring and yet perfect juxtaposition of sound brought me, unexpectedly, to tears. Here is the clip, followed by another performanceof the same piece, in case you prefer to focus on the music and keep Diana out of it. On the other hand, the Diana funeral clip illuminates the public role of a composer like Tavener, whose music -- like the best poetry -- goes beyond mere melody to the expression of emotions that are so often ineffable.
The music of Tavener's which I have sung is also perhaps his best-known work, The Lamb, set to words by William Blake. It's deceptively simple, full of accidentals and melody lines that you just have to learn by heart, but the effect, when sung well, is transcendent. Here is a recording by The Sixteen, with the sheet music as the visual. To my mind, anyone who wrote such a piece is a genius, and I'm both sorrowful for his early death, and grateful today for his life and work.
“I’ve been thinking about the Presbyterian minister who had guided me as a youth. I remember he was a man who struggled with doubt, and that impressed me. He used to quote an old Zen Buddhist line to me: 'Life is a creeping tragedy. That is why you must be cheerful’.”