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 evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
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

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf