Before Princess Diana's funeral, few had ever heard of John Tavener. By its close, almost the whole world had heard his `flights of angels' sing her to her rest. Here the composer of the `Song for Athene' tells Nicholas Roe how the roots of his music lie in the birth of his brother and the death of his mother
I can see it now. I was three years old. I can see the piano I played and I can see the gramophone player which I also played endlessly, endlessly, endlessly the same music, all the time my mother was in hospital.

I can't see any particular significance in the music itself - it was Humperdinck's "Brother, Come Dance With Me" from Hansel and Gretel; so that isn't important, although when I hear it even nowadays it has a very emotional effect on me. But the fact that I needed music in every form was important.

I was very close to my mother and at that stage I was the only child. My sister had died at birth and my mother had had such enormous difficulty giving birth to me that she nearly lost me.

Because of this, when she had my brother they kept her in hospital for quite some time. But I had no idea why she had had to go away. She had just gone and I'm told I played the piano all the time or I went back to this gramophone, wound it up and asked for this record to be put on again and again and again.

The ghost or echo I have is music - whether on the wind-up gramophone or the piano, it seemed somehow to comfort me and I remember it so vividly as something like soothing pain.

Later every time I did it, it seemed to soothe pain, and it's only now, at the age of 53, that I can finally understand why. Because I see it as a form of prayer. I might be completely crackers and have got it wrong but that is how it seemed to me.

I feel that the music I write is far ahead of what I am and often the music teaches me something. Does that make sense? It's part of a spiritual journey, and the journey in my case takes place through writing music and it tells me things about my life. The act of writing puts me almost in a trance state, where I feel enormously close to God.

I see this with hindsight, of course. It really became clear to me much later, after my mother died in 1983. But another point of revelation was when the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in England asked me, in 1974, to make a setting of the liturgy without my knowing anything of the Orthodox tones, or how the services are put together - just to react to the text.

When my version of the liturgy was celebrated, I was pounced on by members of the Orthodox congregation, who said: "You have not written this in the prescribed tone; you have set this to your own music" and it had a paralysing effect on me. I knew they were right but I had to discover why they were right.

It was the discovery of tradition. When I was three, I connected prayer with composing. Now I was realising that there was this thing called sacred music which had nothing to do with Beethoven and Mozart and nothing to do with this knowledge I thought I had acquired yet was never totally happy with.

I would say that, so far as Western music is concerned, at the end of the Middle Ages when the scientific revolution began, the ego started to come in more and more; music is no longer an act of worship, it starts becoming separate - and I can't bear the concept of art for art's sake. It becomes music for the critics.

When people talk about composition they say, "I think he's finding his own voice." Suddenly that seemed to be ridiculous. It was not a question of finding one's own voice, it was a question of finding the voice. It brings into my thought the question that perhaps music does go right back to the beginning of the world, hence the link with the sacred.

Again with hindsight, I can say today that in a way I had to cease to exist as John Tavener.

Then my mother died and the revelation really started to happen. She died of cancer but in a rather wonderful way, because an Orthodox priest was actually in her room and was singing the Office of the Departing of the Human Soul, and at the point of "Amen" she died, which I felt was ... appropriate.

But it stopped me writing. I didn't want to write at all. I went to see an eminent traditionalist who said, "Go to the nature you love most of all", and that for me was Greece and I did exactly what he told me to do.

I stayed in Aegina in a very small hotel which had been used by Greek contemporary poets, a very unusual hotel with a unique atmosphere.

My intention was not to write, but after about six weeks I found, not against my will exactly, that I was writing and I couldn't stop. It was a kind of pouring out and there was a connection - although I could never have analysed it - between what I had been doing in the Seventies, and what was coming out now. And the music had a new kind of humility. That was very important to me and I worked and prayed my way out of the grief I felt for my mother.

I was healed by the landscape and also by going to visit the relics of a saint - St Necktarios of Aegina. I remember putting my head on his relics and I heard the words "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also", from the Gospels. I think the point was that I must continue, and must continue writing music because writing music for me is my life and it meant that my life could continue.

The process is going on. Removing formulae, removing any preconceived idea I had about religion or music because I can lump them together. Just allowing something to pass through me. Call it the Holy Spirit, if you like.

Comments