FEW CLASSICAL COMPOSERS have managed to cut a rock star dash quite like Sir John Tavener. Standing 6' 6", customarily dressed in white and with flowing locks, his image matched his reputation as a modern day mystic who channeled his faith through his music. But faith had not always been at the heart of his work. While he was drawn to classical music at an early age, he also spent a period in the ’60s – having already developed a reputation as a composer – enjoying the spoils of swinging London and the company of beautiful women including Mia Farrow.
“He enjoyed the spoils of swinging London.”
In 1967 he fell into the Beatles’ orbit when his brother, Roger, who was undertaking some building work at Ringo Starr’s Highgate home, played the drummer a cassette of The Whale.
A dramatic cantata in eight sections, it was loosely based on the biblical story of Jonah And The Whale and intrigued Starr enough for him to play the piece to John Lennon. The pair subsequently decided that they wanted to sign Tavener to the band’s Apple label and Ringo attended the recording session for the album, participating in the shouting on the second piece, Melodrama And Pantomime. The album itself was released on September 25, 1970 – the same day as Starr’s second solo offering, Beaucoups Of Blues.
“Contemporary music at that time was in a cul-de-sac,” reflected Sir John Tavener years later. “I wanted to bring it to a wider audience. The Whale was in the category of so-called serious music, and yet it brings together a wide series of musical styles. It was influenced by people such as The Beatles, the spirit of the times, and I think The Whale certainly had a pop element to it.”
Tavener also released A Celtic Requiem on Apple in 1971, which duly impressed Benjamin Britten and led to the commissioning of Thérèse by the Royal Opera in 1973.
Most significant of all was Tavener’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy in 1977, which proved to have a profound effect on his music and would lead to arguably his most celebrated piece, The Protecting Veil, which he completed in 1988.
In 2001 he engaged with the pop world once again when he wrote Prayer Of The Heart for Björk, which the Icelandic singer recorded with the Brodsky Quartet. The piece was premiered in 2004.
Tavener battled with ill health for most of his life. Like Joey Ramone and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, he had been diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, and in 2007 he suffered a heart attack in Switzerland that forced him to question his faith. His work, however, continued as a welcome distraction from the pain he felt in later life.
He died on November 12 at his home in Dorset. His school friend and follow composer John Rutter told the BBC: “He believed that music was for everybody and was a prayer.”