Sir John Tavener

1944–2013

Modern

Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? Some people know when they’re very young and some never really know at all! But for others, a moment comes when they realize what it is they want to do. For John Tavener, it was when he heard a piece by Stravinsky – called Canticum Sacrum. He said it was ‘the piece that woke me up and made me want to be a composer’.

In 1968, aged 24, he wrote a work called The Whale. It was noisy, original and clever. Not long after its premiere, he met John Lennon of The Beatles. Then he met the other Beatles, and soon he had his music on their ‘Apple’ record label – pretty cool for anyone, but especially a classical composer!

After a few years, Tavener’s style of writing changed. He joined the Russian Orthodox Church, and its music inspired him. He wasn’t afraid of time. A composer might feel that today’s busy listener doesn’t have time to listen to a very slow piece. Not John Tavener: his music often seems to float in mid-air, inviting you to float with it.

In 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash. Tavener’s Song for Athene was played at her funeral, and it made him even more famous. Not many composers were writing music that was so soothing, so calm. Tavener touched people’s hearts.

Sadly his own heart was not healthy. He had a serious disease called Marfan syndrome. But he thought about suffering in a very brave and positive way: ‘Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got,’ he said.

Like the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, John Tavener thought deeply about the world and how to express it in music. By the end of his life, he had included different faiths and languages in his works, and believed that all religions should be seen as equal.

Sometimes, in this busy world, we discover a hunger for peace. Tavener understood this: his music reminds us that there is time to breathe.

Sir John Tavener, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Relax and enjoy and some Tavener tracks…

Song for Athene

Written in 1993 in memory of a close friend killed in a cycling accident, this became famous when it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The words are by Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun. It is a gentle piece for choir.

Performers: Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256

The Protecting Veil (final section)

Famous for its long, high cello notes, this powerful, atmospheric piece was composed for the 1989 BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388

In Alium: Section A

Tavener wrote In Alium for London’s BBC Proms in 1968. For solo soprano, strings, organ, Hammond organ, piano, percussion and a tape. With that unusual combination he produces a captivating collection of sounds. Can you hear the children in the background?

Performers: Eileen Hulse, soprano; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 John Tavener was born where?

a. North London
b. Cardiff
c. Manchester

 Tavener was inspired most of all by which religion?

a. Islam
b. Orthodox Christianity
c. Hinduism

 Tavener won which honour from the Crown?

a. A knighthood
b. An Order of Merit
c. A state funeral

 Which famous record label published Tavener’s music?

a. EMI
b. Deutsche Grammophon
c. Apple

 Tavener’s Song for Athene was performed at whose funeral?

a. Elvis
b. David Bowie
c. Princess Diana


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Tavener’s Syvati for cello and choir was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize – alongside songs by The Spice Girls, Radiohead and Primal Scream.
  2. Most of Tavener’s music is religious.
  3. When he was 12, Tavener was taken to see Mozart’s The Magic Flute: he loved the opera for the rest of his life.
  4. Tavener owned at least five classic cars.
  5. John Tavener became ‘Sir’ John Tavener in 2000: it means that he was awarded a knighthood for services to music.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Choir Alone


The Lamb

Using a poem by William Blake, this is one of Tavener’s most famous pieces – partly because the Choir of King’s College Cambridge included it in the 1982 ‘Service of Nine Lessons and Carols’, which is broadcast at Christmas. You can hear the words, ‘Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?’ The lamb represents Jesus Christ, and by the end of the poem it is clear that God made ‘the lamb’: all is peaceful. Listen to the beginning: one single part sings ‘Little Lamb who made thee?’ When the question is asked again, another part comes in underneath, close to the first one: the two parts gently stretch apart at 0.11 and return to the same note on ‘made thee’. The notes clash slightly, but without any harshness. At 0.55, with all voices coming in, the music gets warmer – but still repeating that same phrase. Tavener could write music that seems to make time slow down – this is one of his best examples.

Performers: Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256


The Lord’s Prayer

Here is the best-known prayer of Christianity, set to music that is slow, repetitive and beautiful. There are a lot of ‘suspensions’, which Tavener really enjoyed. These are when two or more notes played together feel slightly uncomfortable, creating a chord that needs to ‘resolve’ (move to something more comfortable and harmonious) – which it usually does, soon afterwards. The brief ‘discomfort’ can be quite effective: our ears seem to enjoy being teased in that way! So here, there are suspensions right from the beginning of the piece. At 0.01 listen to ‘Our’, which lasts for two beats: the first one sounds ‘knotty’ and the second one makes you feel ‘ahh, that’s better’! Or try ‘0.16’, where you get the ‘Hea’ of ‘Heaven’ sounding a bit tense until it moves onto ‘ven’ on the next beat. These gentle suspensions make the piece more moving and interesting to listen to.

Performers: St. John’s College Choir Cambridge, Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256


Magnificat and Nunc dimittis

These two pieces set religious words, in English. They were written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1986. You can hear the drone of the Orthodox tradition. The words of the Magnificat – an ancient Christian hymn that many composers have set to music – begin ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. You can hear the influence of the Orthodox Church under these words in two ways: 1. There is a long note held underneath the higher voices, for half a minute: this is called a drone. Drones are found a lot in music of the Orthodox Church, and Tavener uses them in both these pieces. 2. There are some notes that sound slightly ‘exotic’ – notes that make the music sound less English and more based on scales found in Eastern music. Listen at 0.20, for example, to the beginning of ‘My Saviour’. In the the Nunc dimittis (‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…’), there is again a drone (this time a rumbling drone very deep in the bass!), and then the higher voices get louder and seem to cascade from their top note.

Performers: Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256


Funeral Ikos

Some music can almost hypnotise you: it is powerful enough to cast a kind of spell through your ears, and you stay still, listening to every note. Tavener is able to create music like that. This piece is certainly quite hypnotic when you hear a choir sing it in a big, echoey church. See if you can sit with your eyes closed while it plays, imagining that the singers of this Funeral Ikos are actually with you, all around you. The phrases keep coming back, and after each one there is an ‘Alleluia’ that you’ll get to know quite well!

Performers: Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256

Choir Plus


The Veil of the Temple: You mantle yourself in light

Tavener said that that The Veil of the Temple was ‘the supreme achievement of my life’. He was proud of it. It has four choirs, several orchestras and soloists, words in Greek and English, and lasts at least seven hours. It was first performed in Temple Church in London in 2003, across the night-time. So imagine the darkness and quiet as you listen to this extract from it. The idea of a ‘drone’ (a long note that carries on and on underneath everything else) is used powerfully here. Can you hear it on the organ, right at the start? It’s there, right at the bottom, underneath the singing. The choir builds to some fantastic loud moments. It is a very powerful piece.

Performers: Vox Humana; Bradley Hunter Welch, organ; David N. Childs

Taken from Naxos 8.572511


Svyati, ‘O Holy One’

Not many composers have written music for choir and cello. Svyati is a kind of conversation between the two. The choir sings a hymn in church Slavonic – the language of the Russian Orthodox Church. The words mean ‘Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy Immortal, have Mercy on us’. Tavener began the piece when he found out that his friend’s father had died. While the choir is quite calm, the cello seems to cry with sadness and pain: listen for example at 4.45 to how it comes out through the choir with its crying. Underneath everything, like a big tree-root in the ground, is a drone (a long, held note), sung by basses in the choir.

Performers: Tim Hugh, cello; Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.555256


Lament for Jerusalem

This work, just under an hour long, has seven ‘cycles’. Each cycle has the pattern of a solo sandwich: it goes ‘Chorus – Solo – Chorus’. The first Chorus is part of Psalm 137 (‘By the waters of Babylon’), and the second is a lament, crying for Jerusalem. Across all the cycles, the music gets more powerful and beautiful. The singing is in English and Greek, with words from Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. It is based on just a few brief and simple notes: Tavener could take very few notes and weave his magic to produce a long and captivating work. He called this a ‘mystical love song’.

Performers: Angharad Gruffydd Jones, soprano; Peter Crawford, counter-tenor; Choir of London; Choir of London Orchestra; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557826

No Choir


The Protecting Veil

The Protecting Veil, a big hit for Tavener in 1989, is famous for its long, high cello notes. If you heard the piece without knowing anything about it, you might not guess that it’s a cello playing. For a cellist, it’s quite hard work playing up there – you have to press harder on the strings, so your fingers can get quite sore! But it’s an incredible sound. You can hear how the music grows at the start, over the first minute, before it seems suspended in the air. The orchestra hangs onto chords, and the cello sways over its selection of notes. When the harmony then moves (e.g. 2.12–2.50), it is amazing. The cellist Steven Isserlis asked John Tavener to write a 10-minute cello piece: eventually he got a piece lasting 45 minutes! Through the music, Tavener expresses his Russian Orthodox faith: it is based on a feast that is part of the Orthodox calendar, the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. Simple but magical, it is music that can find its way right to your heart.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388


In Alium

There is a real collage of sounds here. Weird and wonderful, it’s like a dream. Can you hear the children playing while the soprano sings? And after she goes so high it feels like she might crack, can you hear the piano playing, as if it’s coming from a house down the street? Then the children start to sing hymns while the soprano continues in her strange way. Just listen to her notes right at the end of track 1! They’re incredibly high. Then, in track 2, there is a tape playing to create the ‘voices’. They sing ‘Spem’, which is Latin and comes from Thomas Tallis’s famous Renaissance piece Spem in alium – the ‘in alium’ is the title of Tavener’s piece. When it was first performed in the Royal Albert Hall in London, there were four loudspeakers spaced out, and the audience had a whole mixture of sounds coming at them from different places (listen at 2.25 on track 2, for example, for some kissing and other things!). Written in 1968, In Alium sets a Catholic poem in French about hope. But using soprano, piano, organ, hammond organ, percussion and tape, Tavener plays around with it to give us this bizarre and bewitching jumble of sounds!

Performers: Eileen Hulse, soprano; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554388


Zodiacs

Tavener is known best for his choral works, but he did write several short piano pieces too. The mysterious Zodiacs was composed in 1997 and is dedicated to Tavener’s youngest daughter, Sofia. Like a lot of Tavener’s music, it almost seems as if it is hovering in the sky.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570442


In Memory of Two Cats

Tavener loved his cats. After he lost them, he wrote this short piece in their memory. Gentle and still, it sounds like bells floating in mid-air.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570442