John Tavener, Composer Associated with Beatles and Princess Diana, Dies at 69

Audio: The Tallis Scholars Perform John Tavener at St. Ignatius Loyola in 2000

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 01:09 PM

Composer John Tavener Composer John Tavener

John Tavener, an English composer known for his hauntingly spiritual works that drew the attention of the Beatles and the British Royal Family, died on Tuesday at his home in Dorset, England. He was 69 and his publishers said he died "peacefully at home."

Tavener had a series of health problems throughout much of his life. He suffered from Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary condition, and had a stroke at age 30. A major heart operation followed in 1990 and he spent four months in intensive care after a heart attack in 2007.

Despite these setbacks, Tavener was remarkably prolific. He achieved particular fame with The Protecting Veil, a piece for cello and strings that topped the classical chart for several months in 1992. Five years later, another cello piece, his Song For Athene, was played at Princess Diana's funeral in Westminster Abbey. But much earlier, Tavener came to the attention of the Beatles; his dramatic cantata The Whale, telling the story of Jonah and the whale, was a favorite of John Lennon.

Born in Wembley Park, near London, Tavener was raised a Protestant, but as a young man he converted to Catholicism. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, his career got its first boost in 1968 when the Beatles released The Whale on Apple Records. With his shoulder-length hair and modish attire, the six-foot-six-inch composer cut a dramatic, countercultural figure.

Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Faith in 1977, an experience that colored his music since. Many of his works were sung either in Greek or a mixture of Greek and English, and stretched over extended lengths. They included the massive Orthodox Vigil Service, for priests, chorus and handbells (1984); Lamentations and Praises, a 70-minute liturgical drama commissioned by Chanticleer in 2002; and The Veil of the Temple, an all-night vigil from 2003.

In a 2000 interview with WNYC’s John Schaefer, Tavener described his views on religion.

“Christianity never meant much to me before before I encountered Orthodoxy. Religion meant a lot: I was interested in Hinduism, I was interested in Buddhism, I was interested in the Sufi form of Islam. And I actually played organ in the Presbyterian Church for 20 years. But I can’t say that Christianity meant that much to me. I think it was the confrontation the esoteric character of Orthodoxy and also the mystical and the real sense of divine eros – the sense of longing.”

Tavener’s popularity in the 1990s intersected with that of so-called "mystical minimalists" like Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part, although his idiom was considered more spare and ascetic. Tavener was nominated twice for the Mercury Prize and he was knighted in 2000. Following Princess Diana's death, he composed and dedicated to her memory the piece Eternity's Sunrise.

Tavener is survived by his second wife, Maryanna, and three children.

In 2000, WQXR sister station WNYC broadcast a Tavener retrospective concert from the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It featured several works performed by the Tallis Scholars. Listen above to the choir’s performances with the Flux String Quartet of the following pieces:

1) Parting Gift for Tam Farrow
2) Funeral Canticle
3) Hymn of the Unwaning Light
4) Lament of the Mother of God
5) Song for Athene

Tune in to Q2 Music on Wednesday at 1 pm ET for a special hour of Tavener's music.


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Comments [3]

Stephanie J. Hughes from Manchester, NJ

John Tavener was one of those gifts that leave the world too soon. We were lucky to have him as long as we did. His music was the kind that shimmers and has the echo of long ago - today! The Orthodox church has astoundingly beautiful music and his stands right with it. God bless and rest you, John Tavener. Thank you.

Nov. 14 2013 07:34 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

Thank you Jason, it was wonderful to hear.
One would not expect anything other than having a Public Radio outlet minimize anyone's Christianity.
Public Broadcasting has evolved into National Liberal Broadcasting and takes away most any focus on traditional Judeo Christian values.
If for profit broadcast stations carried classical music I would not listen to my local West Virginia Public Radio and WQXR online.
However with Sirusxm devoting three of its stations to classical music, one being an outlet excursively for The Metropolitan Opera, Public Radio could eventually lose its classical music listeners if it continues its thirty year long path of espousing liberal and atheist philosophy.
Case in Point, West Virginia Public Radio along with WAMU from Washington D.C. were the only two outlets for broadcast classical music in Western Va. and the West Virginia Panhandle.
If you recall for almost a week after 9-11 virtually all national and cable networks cancelled advertisements and focused on coverage of the tragedy .
However on 9/14, I was shocked to hear West Virginia Public Radio running advertisements for one of its supporters, a local bread and breakfast resort, and then later in the day, a local law firm.
I called West Virginia Public Radio headquarters and spoke with James Mohammed, who was then their General Manager, and may still be holding that position.
When I questioned why his network was running advertisements so soon after 9/11 when commercial networks stayed away from them in honor of those lost, he abruptly answered by saying "we have bills to pay".
I will admit from that day on I have never given a dime to them and listen anyway. Any organization that could be so crass and commercial should not operate under the banner of Public Radio.
I know a number of other local listeners protested to the West Va. Public Radio Board of Governors but never got a response.
May Mr. Tavener rest in peace and may God bring comfort to his family. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 13 2013 03:38 PM
Jason from New York

WQXR you should write his whole quote regarding Christianity and its impact upon Mr. Tavener's music. I suggest to other viewers of this site to listen to the 2 min and 14 sec recording where he clearly articulates the Faith that fueled his artistry (which is located underneath the incomplete written quotation of his views regarding Christianity).

Very beautiful insights indeed! God graced Mr. Tavener so He could grace us with wonderful music.

May your soul find quiet repose in God's embrace.

Nov. 13 2013 02:34 PM

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