John Tavener

Sir John Kenneth Tavener (28 January 1944 – 12 November 2013) was an English composer, known for his extensive output of choral religious works. Among his best known works are The Lamb (1982), The Protecting Veil (1988), and Song for Athene (1993).

Tavener in 2005

Tavener first came to prominence with his cantata The Whale, premiered in 1968. Then aged 24, he was described by The Guardian as "the musical discovery of the year",[1] while The Times said he was "among the very best creative talents of his generation".[2] During his career he became one of the best known and popular composers of his generation, most particularly for The Protecting Veil, which as recorded by cellist Steven Isserlis became a best-selling album, and Song for Athene which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana.[3] The Lamb featured in the soundtrack for Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty.[4] Tavener was knighted in 2000 for his services to music and won an Ivor Novello Award.[5] He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Sarum College in 2001.[6]

Early life and educationEdit

Tavener was born on 28 January 1944 in Wembley, London.[7] His parents ran a family building firm[3] and his father was also an organist at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Frognal, Hampstead.[8] At the age of 12, Tavener was taken to Glyndebourne to hear Mozart's The Magic Flute, a work he loved for the rest of his life.[9] That same year he heard Stravinsky's most recent work, Canticum Sacrum, which he later described as "the piece that woke me up and made me want to be a composer".[9]

Tavener became a music scholar at Highgate School (where a fellow pupil was John Rutter).[10] The school choir was often employed by the BBC in works requiring boys' voices, so Tavener gained choral experience singing in Mahler's Third Symphony and Orff's Carmina Burana.[9] He started to compose at Highgate, and also became a sufficiently proficient pianist to perform the second and third movements of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and, in 1961 with the National Youth Orchestra, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2.[9] He also became organist and choirmaster in 1961 at St John's Presbyterian Church, Kensington (now St Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church),[11] a post he held for 14 years.[9]

Tavener entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1962, where his tutors included Sir Lennox Berkeley.[3][9] During his studies there he decided to give up the piano and devote himself to composition.[9]

The Whale and early operasEdit

Tavener first came to prominence in 1968 with his dramatic cantata The Whale, based on the Old Testament story of Jonah.[3] It was premièred at the London Sinfonietta's début concert,[3] which was also the opening concert of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.[12] Tavener's younger brother, Roger, was then doing some building work on Ringo Starr's home and, gaining the musician's interest, persuaded the Beatles to have The Whale recorded by Apple Records and released in 1970.[3] The following year Tavener began teaching at Trinity College of Music, London.[8] Other works by Tavener released by Apple included his A Celtic Requiem, which impressed Benjamin Britten enough to persuade Covent Garden to commission an opera from Tavener.[3] The ultimate result, to a libretto by playwright Gerard McLarnon, was Thérèse: when staged in 1979 the opera was thought too static to be a successful drama.[3]

Tavener had also been deeply affected by his brief 1974 marriage to the Greek dancer Victoria Maragopoulou.[3][9] His chamber opera A Gentle Spirit (1977), with a libretto by McLarnon based on a story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, concerns a pawnbroker whose marriage fails to the extent that his wife commits suicide. It has been deemed "far superior to Thérèse, with the internal drama more suited to the stage".[3] Significantly, it also touched on Russian Orthodoxy, to which McLarnon had been a convert for several years.[3]

Conversion to Orthodox ChristianityEdit

Tavener converted to the Orthodox Church in 1977.[13] Orthodox theology and liturgical traditions became a major influence on his work. He was particularly drawn to its mysticism, studying and setting to music the writings of Church Fathers and completing a setting of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the principal eucharistic liturgy of the Orthodox Church: this was Tavener's first directly Orthodox-inspired music.[14]

Later careerEdit

John Tavener's choral arrangement of William Blake's "The Lamb" from his collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience is a continually popular work. This image represents copy C, object 8 of that original poem, currently held by the Library of Congress.[15]

Tavener's subsequent explorations of Russian and Greek culture resulted in Akhmatova Requiem: this failed to enjoy success either at its Edinburgh Festival premiere in 1981, or at its Proms' performance the following week where many of the audience left before it finished.[9] Of more lasting success was Tavener's short unaccompanied four-part choral setting of William Blake's poem "The Lamb", written one afternoon in 1982 for his nephew Simon's third birthday.[16] This simple homophonic piece is usually performed as a Christmas carol. Later prominent works include The Akathist of Thanksgiving of 1987, written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church; The Protecting Veil, first performed by cellist Steven Isserlis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the 1989 Proms; and Song for Athene (1993). The two choral works were settings of texts by Mother Thekla, a Russian Orthodox abbess who was Tavener's long-time spiritual adviser until her death in 2011.[14] Song for Athene in particular gained worldwide exposure when performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.[3]

Tavener's Fall and Resurrection, first performed in 2000, used instruments such as ram's horn, Ney flute and kaval. It was dedicated to the Prince of Wales, with whom Tavener formed a lasting friendship.[3] His work Ikon of Eros (2003) was commissioned for violinist Jorja Fleezanis, then concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, with vocal soloists and the Minnesota Chorale and recorded at the Cathedral of St. Paul, conducted by Paul Goodwin. Also in 2003 Tavener composed the exceptionally large work The Veil of the Temple (which was premièred at the Temple Church, London), based on texts from a number of religions. Identified by Tavener as "the supreme achievement of my life",[14] it is set for four choirs, several orchestras and soloists and lasts at least seven hours.[10] Prayer of the Heart, written for and performed by Björk, was premiered in 2004.[17] In 2007 Tavener composed The Beautiful Names, a setting of the 99 names of God in the Muslim tradition, sung in Arabic.[14]

It had been reported, particularly in the British press, that Tavener left Orthodox Christianity to explore a number of other different religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam, and became a follower of the Traditionalist philosopher Frithjof Schuon.[18][19] In an interview with The New York Times, conducted by British music journalist Michael White, Tavener said: "I reached a point where everything I wrote was terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of the Orthodox Church, and I felt the need, in my music at least, to become more universalist: to take in other colors, other languages." The interviewer also reported at the time that he "hasn’t abandoned Orthodoxy. He remains devotedly Christian."[20] Speaking on the BBC Four television programme Sacred Music in 2010, Tavener described himself as "essentially Orthodox".[21] He reiterated both his desire to explore the musical traditions of other religions, and his adherence to the Orthodox Christian faith, on Start the Week,[22] recorded only days before his death and broadcast on 11 November 2013.

In 2020, Sir David Pountney, former artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, announced that Tavener's final opera, Krishna (which was completed in 2005 but had remained in manuscript form) would be staged by Grange Park Opera in 2024. Pountney himself will be directing the production.[23]

Personal lifeEdit

In 1974 he married the Greek dancer Victoria Maragopoulou, but it only lasted eight months.[3][9] In 1991 he married Maryanna Schaefer with whom he had three children, Theodora, Sofia and Orlando.[3][24] He suffered from considerable health problems throughout his life. He had a stroke in his thirties, heart surgery and the removal of a tumour in his forties, and suffered two successive heart attacks which left him very frail.[25] He was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome in 1990.[3][26][27] Lady Tavener broadcast a charity appeal on BBC Radio 4 in October 2008 on behalf of the Marfan Trust.[28]

Tavener had an interest in classic cars, owning an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, a Jaguar XJ6 and a Bentley Mulsanne Turbo.[29]

Death and legacyEdit

Tavener died, aged 69, on 12 November 2013 at his home in Child Okeford, Dorset.[30] Among those in the music world who paid tribute were composers John Rutter[30] and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies,[30] cellist Steven Isserlis,[30] Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, oboist Nicholas Daniel, Roger Wright (controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the Proms), and soprano Patricia Rozario. A tribute was also received from Charles, Prince of Wales.[30] Tavener's funeral was held at Winchester Cathedral on 28 November 2013. The service was conducted in the Orthodox rite and was presided over by Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira, representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the most senior Orthodox bishop in the UK. About 700 mourners attended.[31]

Rutter describes Tavener as having the "very rare gift" of being able to "bring an audience to a deep silence."[30] According to Isserlis: "He had his own voice. He wasn't writing to be popular – he was writing the music he had to write."[30]

Musical styleEdit

While Tavener's earliest music was influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen – often invoking the sound world of Stravinsky, in particular Canticum Sacrum,[3] and the ecstatic quality found in various works by Messiaen – his later music became more sparse, using wide registral space and was usually diatonically tonal.[8] Tavener recognised Arvo Pärt as "a kindred spirit" and shared with him a common religious tradition and a fondness for textural transparency.[10]

Career highlightsEdit


Selected recordingsEdit

  • The Whale, Apple Records
  • The Protecting Veil, Virgin 561849-2
  • Schuon Lieder, Black Box BBM1101
  • The Veil of the Temple, RCA 82876661542
  • Songs of the Sky, Signum Records SIGCD149
  • "Tavener: Choral Works," Hyperion CDA67475
  • Missa Wellensis, Signum Records SIGCD442
  • Palintropos, A Flock Ascending AFACD001


  1. ^ Meirion Bowen (12 November 2013) [13 June 1968]. "Two Tavener Works at the Queen Elizabeth Hall". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  2. ^ "Linn Records: "Carmina Celtica: Canty"". Archived from the original on 13 November 2013. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak Michael J Stewart (12 November 2013). "Sir John Tavener obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  4. ^ "Janus Films presents The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)". Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  5. ^ Adam Sherwin (18 January 2010). "Not just a blip: Ivor Novello awards to recognise computer game music". The Times. Retrieved 12 February 2010.
  6. ^ Snook, Sebastian. "Tributes Paid to Composer Sir John Tavener, Honorary Fellow of Sarum College".
  7. ^ David Mason. Greene's biographical encyclopedia of composers. Doubleday, 1995. 31. ISBN 0-385-14278-1
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar Ivan Moody. "Tavener, John", Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 13 November 2013 (subscription required)
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Music Obituary: Sir John Tavener". The Daily Telegraph. 12 November 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  10. ^ a b c Michael White, "A Time for Reflection", BBC Music Magazine, Vol. 22 No. 2 (December 2013): p. 29.
  11. ^ "Our History (Pre-1975)". Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  12. ^ Michael White, "A Time for Reflection", BBC Music Magazine, Vol. 22 No. 2 (December 2013), p. 28.
  13. ^ Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener (obituary).
  14. ^ a b c d Anastasia Tsioulcas (12 November 2013). "Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener". NPR Music. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  15. ^ Morris Eaves; Robert N. Essick; Joseph Viscomi (eds.). "Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy C, object 9 (Bentley 8, Erdman 8, Keynes 8) "The Lamb"". William Blake Archive. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  16. ^ "John Tavener – The Lamb (1982)". Music Sales Classical. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  17. ^ "John Tavener, composer and seeker, dies at 69". USA Today. Associated Press. 12 November 2013. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  18. ^ Richard Morrison (November 2004). "99 Names for God: John Tavener Turns his Back on Orthodoxy". BBC Music.: p. 30. Tavener is quoted as saying, "It strikes me now that all religions are as senile as one another."
  19. ^ David McCleery. "The Beautiful Names: John Tavener". BBC. Retrieved 22 June 2007.
  20. ^ White, Michael (17 June 2007). "Christian Composer, Inspired by Allah's 99 Names". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
  21. ^ Sacred Music, series 2, episode 4, broadcast in the UK on BBC Four on 2 April 2010.
  22. ^ "BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week". BBC. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  23. ^ "John Tavener's 'magical' last opera to be staged for first time". The Guardian. 8 April 2020. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  24. ^ "Family | Sir John Tavener". Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  25. ^ Michael White A rare meeting with Sir John Tavener, The Times 1 May 2009
  26. ^ "27 December 1999 – Music for a new millennium". BBC News. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  27. ^ "John Tavener: God be in my head". The Independent. 20 June 2004. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  28. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Appeal – Marfan Trust". BBC. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  29. ^ "10 reasons why we love John Tavener". Classic FM.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h BBC News (12 November 2013). "Sir John Tavener: Composer dies aged 69". Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  31. ^ "Funeral held for composer Tavener". 28 November 2013.
  32. ^ Amu Review The Independent, 19 September 2005. Retrieved 2010
  33. ^ "Classical Net – Composers – Tavener". Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  34. ^ "Janus Films presents The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)". Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  35. ^ a b c d e The Telegraph: John Tavener: five top pieces (accessed 14 November 2013)
  36. ^ a b c d e Andrew Stewart, notes to Signum Records CD SIGCD244
  37. ^ "Elizabeth Full Of Grace (2002)". Music Sales Classical. Chester Music. Retrieved 11 May 2017.
  38. ^ The Guardian: Pump it up John (accessed 14 November 2013)

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit