Master of the mystical

John Tavener, whose work will be showcased at this weekend’s Temenos festival, is a rarity: a composer of art music who is popular as well as controversial, writes Martin Adams

FEW COMPOSERS OF art music can claim to be as widely known as John Tavener. Whether one is a regular concert-goer or not, it is likely that one has heard his music, if only because Song for Athene , his 1993 lament for a young woman who died in a road accident, was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. He is a composer who tends to arouse strong reactions for or against; and as a man and musician, he seems unafraid of controversy.

Sometimes it seems as if he likes to shock; and that was how he came to public attention. So how did a composer whose initial claim to fame was as a tumultuous enfant terrible come to be so widely accepted? And why is he so controversial?

Tavener was born to musical parents in 1944 in London. He has said: “I cannot remember a time when there was no music in my life.” His earliest interest was in becoming a professional pianist, and his unusual abilities as an improviser were a foreshadowing of his career as a composer. Music scholarships to Highgate School, and later to the Royal Academy of Music, brought him into contact with a wide range of professional and student musicians. His composition teachers included Lennox Berkeley (1903-89) and David Lumsdaine (born 1931).

That was a route comparable to those taken by many accomplished musicians before and since. However, even during that early journey Tavener was inclined to go his own way. For example, he emphatically rejected serialism, the compositional method pioneered by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in the inter-war years, which in 1960s Britain was almost an orthodoxy. Serial credentials were the first stage in getting a passport to a BBC broadcast or commission.

Writing in 2000, he declared that he had always been “revolted by Schoenberg . . . the filthy, rotten ‘dirt dump’ of the 20th century”. He could not respond to “the so-called ‘Germanic Tradition’, whose by now rotting corpse – the hideous sound world of its fabricated complexity – smothers archetypal experience that I have always sought”.

Strong words. But in retrospect, it is clear that Tavener has always been interested primarily in music’s potential for religious or metaphysical expression. Nevertheless, it was not via piety that he achieved his first fame. It was with a shock-piece.

Anyone who had even half an ear on the British new-music scene during the late 1960s will remember how the splash made by Tavener’s The Whale echoed around the world. Premiered at the London Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert in 1968, its unusual combination of effects was all the more startling because of their use in a biblical story, that of Jonah. It opens with a newscaster reading a long encyclopaedia definition of the whale, there are loudhailers, a stamping chorus and, as Jonah emerges from the belly of the whale on to dry land, what has variously been described as a musical belch or vomit.

The Whale had the rare distinction of immediately receiving multiple performances in Britain and many other countries. Just two years later it was recorded on the Beatles’ Apple label, a striking testament to its “alternative” image. However, the composer’s recent views of his youthful panache are less than enthusiastic: “. . . it was a cul-de-sac, like all music that considers itself to be ‘doing new things’ – that terrible conceit and lie.”

THAT IS CONSISTENT with Tavener’s search for the “archetypal experience” he found wanting in the Germanic tradition. In his late teens he started composing music that reflected the beauties of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Works such as In alium and Introit for March 27, the feast of St John Damascene (both from 1968) were highly praised, and remain in the concert repertoire.

However, Catholicism was to be just a phase in Tavener’s search for archetypal experience. Writing about another important Catholic work, Ultimos Ritos , which was premiered in 1974 in the Netherlands, he says: “It’s on the way to somewhere. But Roman Catholicism would never be able to guide me towards the harmony and balance of tradition I was seeking.”

In 1977 he was received into the Orthodox Church, an eastwards turn that was driven by far more than aesthetic preference. It was a rejection of western materialism, western manifestations of Christianity, and even western art. He had come to detest “the Roman Church’s legalism and scholasticism . . . the worldliness”. Although he now recognises that his absolutist position was extreme, he also recognises that such extremity is an almost inevitable initial stage in rejection.

Here we have one of the central reasons for Tavener’s popularity, and for the controversies that tend to surround his music.

He is a seeker, whose honesty and openness about personal struggle testify to a distinctive kind of moral courage. Few are willing to stick their necks out and risk ridicule by so emphatically saying “I believe”, and to intensify the risk by avoiding the tight definitions that religious tradition tends to require. On the one hand he has been derided as a religious nut; on the other he has come under suspicion because of his willingness to modify his position, which he has done several times.

It is for the music written after that eastern conversion that Tavener is known among the wider public – and for which he has been strongly criticised. Negative views often focus on the music’s repetitiveness.

There is suspicion of a composer who, raised within the traditions of western art music, rejects them by going for what some see as a soft option: hard thought is replaced by ear-tickling sensuality and by simple formulae with a populist purpose.

However, it is an inescapable fact that Tavener’s popularity rests on far more than a high clapometer reading. He has a distinctive knack of creating a sense of calm mystery, often by using stylistic features associated with music for the Orthodox Church.

In our uncertain and anxious age, his music seems to offer solace via an aspiration to transcendence – a transcendence that appeals all the more because it is not tied to a tightly defined creed. Moreover, Tavener offers food for thought to those who are interested in the relationship between a composer’s life and his music.

He has had several bouts of ill-health, and at least two serious illnesses have been life-threatening. No wonder, they might say, that so much of his music sets texts concerned with death, with memorials that remind us, as well as him, of our own mortality.

The Temenos festival in Drogheda and Dundalk next weekend includes some of the most important works in Tavener’s musical and spiritual journey; and some of the more recent ones show that, although he remains in communion with the Orthodox Church, his spiritual thought is essentially syncretic. Within the last 10 years or so he has shown an increasing interest in non- Christian eastern traditions; and his interest in mystical writers of all kinds has been long-standing. These include William Blake and WB Yeats, and their poetry appears in several of the works in the festival.

In one of the works on Friday (Drogheda), Supernatural Songs (2003), Tavener sets poems by Yeats, of whom the composer says that “he is the artist to whom I feel closest in this bewildering age”. That closeness derives partly from Yeats’s attachment to Vendantic spirituality; and Tavener recognises this 30-minute work, scored for strings, pow-wow drum and Hindu temple gong, as representing “a change of metaphysical direction . . . a realisation [that] the same essential truths lie hidden beneath the forms of all great traditions”.

THE FESTIVAL IS promoted by Louth Contemporary Music Society, which, since it was formed in 2006, has developed an impeccable record in organising high-quality performances of contemporary music, in devising themed festivals, and in commissioning new works from front-rank composers.

This year has already included Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass; and for Temenos, the society’s leading light, Eamonn Quinn, has commissioned a new work from Tavener.

The three-day event includes the Irish debut (Sunday in Drogheda) of Anonymous 4, leading performers of medieval and renaissance music, whose clean voices are perfect for Tavener’s work. It also features the famous English choir, Polyphony, who (on Saturday in Dundalk) will be giving the world premiere of Tavener’s new work, O My People. In keeping with the composer’s expanded range of spiritual influences, this setting of a Byzantine poem includes ideas that draw on Hindu and Buddhist sacred traditions.


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