Sir John Tavener: Pioneer of ‘new’ classical music dies at the age of 69

The composer’s work breathed new life into the popular genre

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the music of John Tavener, who has died at the age of 69. It was 1989: the world premiere of The Protecting Veil, his cello concerto, at the Proms. A sound began to emerge – one deep-set chord – and rose. And rose. And continued to rise, a shining, all-enveloping sound that sucked you in like a tunnel filling up with golden light. It confounded every expectation. Every time you thought it couldn’t carry on, it went further. It hit you in the gut, the heart and the human soul.

For decades it had been assumed – implicitly – that new classical music had to sound hideous, or it couldn’t possibly be any good. The effect of The Protecting Veil was akin to a glass cathedral appearing amid a Brutalist cityscape of stained concrete.

By then, of course, Tavener had been around for some time. His early works embraced the avant-garde. His breakthrough composition was The Whale, an oratorio based on the story of Jonah, first performed in 1968 at the London Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert and subsequently recorded on The Beatles’ Apple label.

His devotion to spirituality in music developed with his conversion in 1977 to the Russian Orthodox Church. There he seems to have found his true voice. Career landmarks from then on were numerous and high-profile.

His “Song for Athene” was played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997; his Blake-inspired “Eternity’s Sunrise” was dedicated to her memory. His Requiem was premiered in 2008 in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral – but Tavener, who had Marfan syndrome and was continually dogged by ill-health, was too ill to attend. A heart attack in 2007 profoundly affected his approach to composition; among other things, he noted, his works emerged more concise. Instead of the vast scale of, for instance, his 2003 all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple, which lasted seven hours, he found himself confining his new pieces to a mere 20 minutes.

Cynicism inevitably attended Tavener’s success. His celebrity status, with many contacts in high society, show business and royalty, left some critics casting aspersions – quite unfairly – on the genuine nature of his art. Yet Tavener found a unique way to touch his listeners and to convey a message about the enduring spirituality of music.

At a time when the contemporary music scene was dominated on the one hand by enduring serialist complexity and on the other by the repetitive purling of American minimalism, Tavener’s music occupied a territory that became known, somewhat sneeringly, as “holy minimalism” – alongside that of the Estonian composer Arvo Part, and Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. He proved that there was not only a place in the UK for new classical music that held wide audience appeal, but a positive hunger for it.

He remained a strong presence in public consciousness to the very end, his voice  heard on Radio 4’s Start the Week on Monday (an interview was recorded on 31 October). His last work, Three Shakespeare Sonnets, is to be  premiered on Friday in Southwark Cathedral.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Chief Executive

£28, 700: Whiskey Whiskey Tango: Property Management Company is seeking a brig...

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?