Maybe you’re not a fan of modern classical music. But you’ve heard of The Beatles, haven’t you? They were among the earliest fans of the English composer Sir John Tavener, who died today at 69. And there’s an excellent chance you have heard, and perhaps been moved by, his music.
If you’re one of the billion people who watched the funeral of Princess Diana, you heard his "Song For Athene" being performed as the coffin was wheeled down the aisle at the end of the ceremony.
If you saw the film Children Of Men, you would’ve heard the soaring soprano and chiming bells of his piece “Eternity’s Sunrise” (dedicated to the late Diana) at the climactic moments. And if you watched the end of the old millennium and the beginning of the new one on TV, you might’ve been able to make out his “A New Beginning,” which was part of the live broadcast from London’s Millennium Dome.
Born in London on Jan. 28, 1944 and knighted in 2000, Tavener was that rare classical composer whose music appealed to non-classical listeners.
The Beatles released his first two albums on their Apple Record label. He was apparently a highly visible figure in the early 1970's, both for his Fab Friends and his love of high-end cars. In 1977 he converted to the Russian Orthodox church, and ever since then his music has had the sound of the mystical chanting of the Eastern Rite as part of its genome.
When I first heard his piece “Ikon Of Light,” for chorus and string trio, in the early 1980's, I was struck by its mysterious, timeless sound. Tavener largely ignored the trends of modern Western music – he told me once that if he had to write the sort of atonal music that characterized so much of 20th century composition, he “wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning.” Instead, he drew on orthodox chant, Sufi music, the English bell-ringing tradition, and texts from a variety of mystics, both Western and Eastern.
In 1979, Tavener had a severe stroke. His health was unsettled after that. He said that he considered “death as a kind of spouse,” because he felt he lived in such intimate contact with it for so long. In 1990 he was diagnosed with Marfan’s Syndrome, a disease that often attacks the heart and the body’s connective tissue, and which often includes symptoms like unusual height and a certain knobby appearance to the facial bones. (Some people believe Abraham Lincoln had the condition.) Tavener was probably close to 6’4” and certainly had the craggy features of Marfan’s.
His recurrent health problems occasionally made flying a problem, and when, in 2000, I co-produced the first-ever concert of Tavener’s music in the States, we were on tenterhooks for weeks wondering if he’d be able to make it over. Eventually, he flew via Concorde (which meant a considerably shorter time in the air), and we presented a series of his works at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side. His old friend Paul McCartney came to perform a work called "In the Month of Athyr,” for narrator and choir; and it was in that church that Sir Paul saw the statue with the phrase “Ecce Cor Meum,” or “Behold My Heart,” which would become the title of his next big classical music project.
In 1999 I visited Tavener at his home in a fairly remote part of Sussex, England. I met his wife, Maryanna Schaefer, and we briefly compared notes to see if we were related. (We were not.) His kids were young, and I was secretly delighted to interview the great mystic and composer (or, as he liked to refer to himself, “John Tavener – miserable sinner”) in a room where the floor was littered with the same Disney movies on tape that were scattered across my own living room.
But that was John Tavener: a man who was deeply spiritual and yet fully engaged with the world. Who claimed the chanting of Greek monks on Mount Athos was one of the greatest sounds of the 20th century and who numbered Prince Charles among his closest friends. His health had worsened in the last ten years and his death today is not a surprise, but it marks the end of one of the most singular careers in modern music.