The composer Sir John Tavener has just died at the age of 69. Here is a quote from the Guardian’s obituary:
His most famous pieces from the 1980s and 90s – slow, rapt, deceptively simple – have felt like attempts to glimpse eternity…
His phenomenal success – making him arguably the UK’s most popular composer – led some critics to accuse Tavener of writing deliberately accessible music that tapped into a vague new-agey-ness for the most cynical of reasons.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Tavener’s shift away from the modernism of his youth to more spiritual sources – from the Russian Orthodox church to Hindu philosophers, from Gregorian chant to eastern musical ideas – is something that, he says, “almost paralysed me. But I don’t apologise for the enthusiasm I felt. For example, when I said that my piece The Beautiful Names [a setting of the 99 names of Allah in the Koran] felt like a portrait of God, I meant it. That’s how it felt to me when the music overcame me. I composed almost daily and I used to meditate – well, I walked round the garden rather than actually sat and meditated. I’d say the Arabic words, and then usually a melody would come to me.” Despite stories to the contrary (he has said all the major religions are “as senile as each other”), he still defines himself as Russian Orthodox, even if he doesn’t regularly go to church. Read the article here
That quote about all religions being senile is worth quoting in full from this BBC article where he writes about religion and ill health:
“I think actually all religions have reached a stage of maturity, therefore decay, and, up to a point, senility,” Sir John says. “Therefore to get back to the basis of them is something very exciting to be able to do.”
Since the start of the 2000s, Sir John has been open to inspiration from other faiths and has looked beyond his Christian devotion to Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Native American beliefs.
“I always go back to what Plato said, that Heaven and Earth were once joined and there was one single primordial being, God,” he says.”And one understands from that, that all religions are equally true, or equally false, I suppose you could say, depending on your perspective.
“I think there will always be a possibility that God doesn’t exist because He is infinitude and into that infinitude must come that possibility.”
During his most recent illness, he has “had a lot of time to think about what I really feel about these things”, Sir John says. “I suppose it’s grown me up spiritually.”
To get a feeling for how sublime, and unusual, his music can be, listen to the second movement of his Ikon of Eros here. What a fantastic use of silence and the violin! I’ll paste in Tavener’s notes on it below.
“The choir acts like a Greek chorus, singing at some distance from the other performers. They sing key words in Greek. The solo singers may be taken from choir, if suitable voices are available. The soprano and baritone in the third movement should be trained by an Indian master, and the tenor in the last movement by a Greek Psaltis. The brass instruments represent God the Father, the strings, God the son, and the woodwind, God the Holy Spirit. The solo violin, which plays almost continuously, represents Divine Eros itself (common in its deepest sense to all religious traditions), and also our longing for God, and His longing for us. It should play form high up, above the main group. The layout of the performers will vary according to the building, but it should be in Trinitarian form, ideally shaped like a pyramid with the solo violin at the pinnacle, or at least above the orchestra. The music should be played in a resonant acoustic, with plenty of space to emphasise the musical symbolism and metaphysics. Unlike Western Art Music, Ikon of Eros succeeds or fails, as does all traditional and sacred art, and all sacred music of the East, by its ability to create an inner spiritual state.” John Tavener