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.