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Books: The glory that was grease

JOHN TAVENER: Glimpses of Paradise by Geoffrey Haydon, Gollancz pounds 20
IS the contemporary composer John Tavener descended from the Tudor musician John Taverner? He certainly likes to think so. And as his biographer Geoffrey Haydon observes, he makes the perfect heir: both have filled churches with their music, and both dramatically switched their religious allegiance. But evidence for the link quite apart from the missing "r" is shaky.

Never mind: the documented facts about our Tavener are noteworthy enough. He was a musical prodigy who bent parents, school and college to his inexorable will. He was a teenage showman, performing his compositions on the pipe organ his grandfather had installed in the family home. While still at school he became organist and choirmaster at a big Kensington church.

Stravinsky was his idol, and after patient door-stepping Tavener got the great man's imprimatur on a work with which he then made his broadcasting debut. But he also loved Noel Coward and The Sound of Music; he was the darling of society soirees, where he played in any style barked out at him. By his mid-twenties he was driving a Rolls, raving around with beautiful people and basking in critical acclaim.

He married with full orthodox panoply a 22-year-old Greek dancer, but couldn't bring himself to leave home; after eight unconsummated months the marriage was annulled. His music was now both mathematical and passionately mystical. At the age of 36 he suffered a stroke while driving; this was the result of an inherited syndrome affecting people who are exceptionally tall (he is six feet six). His neurologist thinks the temporal lobe attacks which have since plagued him have altered his creative mode.

Fanatically addicted to ikons and incense and bells, he began to compose religious works in collaboration with an orthodox abbess. He nearly died under heart surgery. The Protecting Veil, which he wrote while sunbathing in Greece, went straight to the top of the commercial charts. He married a second wife in a second Orthodox wedding, and she bore him a daughter to whom he sang the Russian chant "The bridegroom comes at midnight" as he cut the umbilical cord. He had decreed that this must be the first sound the baby heard.

Haydon conveys the texture of all this with circumstantial detail, and pinpoints recurring elements in the Tavener saga: the obsession with charismatic older women; the mother-fixation against which all his wives and girlfriends struggled in vain; the unbreakable attachment to his family home even after his mother's death. His penchant for "Muses" in their nubile twenties, and his equally insistent penchant for alcohol, are other leitmotivs. It becomes clear from this book that Tavener's overriding obsession with death fearing it, loving it, treating it as a source of inspiration was there from the start.

For those wanting a guide to the music itself, this book will be indispensable. There are minutely detailed descriptions of Sixties "happenings" over which the bell-bottomed, Beatle-mopped composer presided. Tavener's note- clusters and drones are explained, and his palindromes illustrated. His "joy-sorrow chord" and "eternity-note" are discussed at length, and private messages to friends and lovers are teased out of the public art in which they are embedded.

But how much has Haydon withheld? A lot, one senses. Haydon is an acolyte, and though his portrait does include warts emotional cruelty, cynical manipulativeness even these are chronicled in the respectful tone of the official spokesman. There's no critical distance between writer and subject: John Tavener would have seemed more honest if it had been openly ghost-written.

So we must do the sleuthing which Haydon has shirked. The compulsive drinking, and the conveniently-timed migraines a great escape from importunate fiancees send a pretty loud message. Extraordinarily, Haydon tells us virtually nothing about Tavener's mother, so that crucial avenue stays closed. The letters the 19-year-old composer sent to a Welsh harpist with whom he had an abortive, jealous affair "Why did you have to pour your wet grease all over the Tenor, is he more deserving than me?" are textbook Freudian stuff. In his desperate world, everything is sacramental.

Occasionally Haydon lets slip a remark which makes his po-faced edifice tremble. "As his closest friends were aware, John's marriage had not put an end to the mundane relationships with other women. He was tormented by his inability to form a perfect union, and confessed the ghastliness of his life to Metropolitan [Archbishop] Anthony." Lucky old Anthony. "The subject of the fallen woman," intones Haydon in severe musicological mode, "is a Tavener favourite." Fallen women? We are left to guess the rest.

Tavener's music is often bracketed with that of Arvo Part, and indeed their products sometimes sound remarkably similar. But Part's characteristic mode is powerfully disciplined, while Tavener's is ingratiatingly theatrical: for all his other-worldliness, he wants to please the crowd.

Haydon recognises a dichotomy at the heart of his subject. He quotes the second wife's diagnosis: Tavener is "striving to reconcile a deep spirituality with a surface shambles". But this should surely be the other way round. The spirituality is a too-perfect facade, and the shambles lurks menacingly below.