Lifting the Veil: The Authorised Biography of Sir John Tavener By Piers Dudgeon

Music that has you walking on clouds

Every now and then John Tavener's music hits just the right spot. It was his undeniably beautiful "Song for Athene", reworked as "Songs of Angels", whose redemptive grieving caught the mawkish public mood at Diana, Princess of Wales's funeral. A decade before that, his eloquently simple setting of William Blake's poem "The Lamb" overtook John Rutter in "popular" church music stakes. Much earlier, Tavener was darling of the BBC Proms as The Whale clocked up mass sales on the Beatles' Apple label: crossover marketing, but classical music.

The man remains a paradox. Holy sinner? Man of God? Divinely inspired simpleton? Even today, Tavener looks a Sixties leftover: gawky, long-haired, ostentatiously devout, slightly Lennonesque. You expect a whiff of opium as he passes, though his passions are ouzo and incense.

"The Protecting Veil" and "All-night Vigil" have even the uninitiated walking on clouds. So what is this music? Ecstatic? Illuminating? A short cut to Nirvana? The ultimate anti-depressant?

The title, Lifting the Veil, suggests apt female-cum-Orthodox associations. Dudgeon is dogged: if he has to prise off all seven veils to locate the core, he will. His sources include Tavener, and an air of the confessional pervades. One is never wholly sure that the composer isn't feeding out gently disguised gambits as part of a propaganda process.

But Dudgeon's insights are cleverer: at times, deliberate counter-propaganda. He has a direct line to Mother Thekla, the Yorkshire Orthodox abbess who was Tavener's librettist and mentor for a decade. We watch Tavener lurch from prop to prop in a fraught search for integrity, as he semi-liberates himself from mother (or surrogate mother) fixations to embrace a new maturity, marriage and paternity, amid a fresh musical objectivity embracing Orthodox "nomes" number-patterns and even Greek dance-steps. His love affair with Greece runs to a house on Evia.

Only a clutch of his more recent Orthodox-inspired scores acquire the musical force of earlier works such as the Celtic Requiem (children's games informing the liturgy), or the experimental "In Alium". One that Dudgeon admires, "We Shall See Him As He Is", is a superbly contrasted, well-chiselled work that knocks spots off unwieldy efforts. As a miniaturist, he can be perfection itself.

Two operas have yielded only mixed success: Therese, whose rapturous love music revealed a sensual interior, and on which the book casts interesting new light, and Mary of Egypt, whose shy mannerisms grow all the more sanctimonious when intoned by Tavener's vocal muse, soprano Patricia Rozario. Most striking might have been his planned Jean Genet opera.

John Tavener is brazenly quirky, and his route is strewn with his exotic discarded "muses" (Mia Farrow was one). Venerated like icons, they are generally dumped when they respond. There's a lot of unconsummated sex: Eros is the book's, as Tavener's, presiding deity. Dudgeon has come up with an intriguing psychosexual biography, akin to those "clever-made carpets of complexity" the composer purports to shun in composers such as Harrison Birtwistle. Actually Tavener's aspirations and Birtwistle's achievement have something in common - though the former, like his more fanzine public, is still at his beginner's abacus.

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