British composer Sir John Tavener died this week at the age of 69. He was a musician whose works are called otherworldly, while his presence itself was ethereal – helped by his long, flowing hair a tall, thin frame and a penetrating gaze.
Sir John Tavener – classical music’s magician – was both experimental and populist, a mild mannered firebrand with an audience in the centre and the outskirts. My own appreciation of music was inspired by him.
As with many-a-young boy with the capacity to hold a tune and to grow foppish blond curls, I was thrust into the choral tradition at a very early age. I embarked on Sunday-morning services and rehearsals throughout the week for a good five years. It was a lot to take on, especially when I wasn’t much of a believer – even then. But it was there that music became the focus, not the prayers, not the man at the altar, but the scores in my sheet music and the man waving his arms around in front.
It was in my first few months that I discovered Tavener’s work. “The Lamb”, a composition thought up during a car journey from South Devon to London, uses the words of the William Blake poem of the same name. It is deceptive – both simple and complex, at times dissonant, austere, and at others warm and comforting – but unforgettable. All of a sudden I didn’t mind the red robes and the early starts on the weekend.
Sir John Tavener was arguably the single-most popular British classical composer of the late 20th and early 21st century. His earlier forays into experimentalism saw him signed to the Beatles’ Apple label where he released “The Whale” – a prelude to The White Album’s “Revolution 9”. Decades later he was twice nominated for the UK’s Mercury music prize – pipped to the post by the psychedelic dub-rock of Primal Scream and the drum’n’bass sounds of Roni Size, respectively. That shows the breadth of his appeal. And it was his ability to occupy both the popular consciousness as well as fill churches that inspired him and made him unique.
The word most commonly used when describing his work is “spiritual”. For Tavener, music was the essence of God, but you don’t have to be a believer to be a fan.
Aled John is a producer for Monocle 24.