The protecting veil falls for the final time: a Tavener obituary

Sir_John_Tavener_features_in_Word_Made_FleshTHE STREETS of heaven are too crowded with angels. Sir John Tavener CBE, who had been battling with illness for some time, finally succumbed on Tuesday 12th November 2013.

It can be convincingly argued that Tavener was the greatest composer of his generation, crafting the music for Princess Diana’s Funeral with ‘Song for Athene’ in 1997. Since then his music levitated to the mainstream through the opening scene of Tree of Life with Brad Pitt in 2010. ‘The Funeral Canticle’ featured in the opening sequence of the film forces its listeners to question the insignificance of our existence. If God made music, ‘The Funeral Canticle’ would be on constant repeat in the streets of heaven.

Born in January 1944 in London it was obvious from an early age that he had a talent for the musical arts. So it appeared. From the debut of The Lamb, which used words from a Wordsworth Poem as its foundation, until the world premiere of Love Duet from The Play of Krishna, If Ye Love Me and The Death of Ivan Ilyich during an all-Tavener concert given as part of the Manchester International Festival, he produced endless works motivated by spirituality in the theologic tradition.

He has left a musical legacy that deserves to stand on the same level as Benjamin Britten in the pantheon of British composers. In the year where Britten was honoured at The Proms and Ralph Vaughn Williams 151st birthday, the legacy of classical music on these shores is secure.

Tavener suffered from a disease known as Marphan Syndrome, which attacks the connective tissues throughout the body. I was fortunate enough to see his final public appearance at the Manchester International Festival this July, and it can be said that he looked far from well. His appearance sparked applause from the audience the like of which I will unlikely see again. The watching public were in shock, they couldn’t believe he had still made the effort to witness his works debut with such declining health. The personal care he displayed for his projects is what has instilled his musical style into the consciousness of music lovers not only on these shores but around the world.

Tavener was the musical equivalent of the inquisitive philosopher, drawing inspiration for his work from all angles of the artistic spectrum. The stars and planets to the works of Tolstoy, he drew motivation from it all. He forced his listeners to levitate between consciousness and unconsciousness, inducing “twilight”, said Composer Eric Whitacre in tribute to the knight of the realm in conversation with the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow on Channel 4. I could not have put it better myself. His music grabs you and forces you to listen. Classical music is largely out of fashion in the era of drum and bass and auto-tune, but Tavener had a musical magnetism that meant even today I find it incredibly difficult to re-tune the old wireless. Whether you are an atheist or religious is of no concern to me, but if you listen to Tavener’s works and do not feel more intelligent for the pleasure of the experience, I question your humanity. There are few things in this world you could describe as sublime. Tavener’s music is on that ever so short list.

He is survived by his wife Maryanna and his three daughters. Tavener’s name alone is synonymous with a musical quest to understand our purpose on earth, as well as a lifelong odyssey to act with intelligence, grace and reason through the medium of music. He died in his family home in Dorset.