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November 2013
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Sir John Tavener: Composer, Mystic (1944-2013)

Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)

Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)

Sir John Kenneth Tavener died on Tuesday. A London native, he was born January 28, 1944; his father was a Presbyterian organist. Apart from his love of fast cars, his passions guided his music, whether it be the Greeks or his deep religious conviction.

“I was saddened to hear of the death of John Tavener. I vividly remember playing the organ part in The Whale (a highly theatrical work!) at the debut concert of the London Sinfonietta in the late 60’s. His considerable and varied output in many genres has enriched musical life in Britain and elsewhere to a remarkable degree.”

—Sir Andrew Davis, music director
Lyric Opera of Chicago

Listen to “Mystic Minimalist,” an episode of WFMT’s Relevant Tones devoted to Tavener.

Tavener’s 1969 Celtic Requiem caught the eyes and ears of The Beatles, who arranged for a recording to be made on Apple Records, along with his 1968 cantata The Whale. In 1977 he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church, an affiliation he characterized as “a homecoming,” and which became central to his compositions going forward.

“I admire Tavener for his sincere devotion in a time and world where scorn is easily heaped on those who have faith. I know I certainly don’t have any answers, but the simultaneous quality of faith and openness to all things as expressed through his music inspires in me a similar vision. It’s something to which I relate and, at least while performing his music, fervently accept.”

—Andrew Lewis, conductor
Bella Voce; St. Luke’s, Evanston; Elgin Choral Union, and University of Illinois at Chicago

His most celebrated work was Song of Athene, a work performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (video below).

For Tavener music represented a lifelong pursuit of spiritual awareness, taking him in many directions. Early in life he was inspired by Messiaen and Boulez. For many of his major works, Stravinsky held sway over him; later it was the liturgical music of the Orthodox Church. His pursuit of music as prayer was unrelenting, unapologetic, and at times courted controversy. A Westminster Cathedral performance of Tavener’s The Beautiful Names (2007), a meditation on the 99 names of Allah, sparked protests by English Catholics who opposed the singing of the Quran-based texts in the Cathedral.

John Tavener is survived by his wife Maryanna and their three children.

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