Contemplating Tavener

The papers have published many impressive Obituaries for Sir John Tavener, with flowing and glowing tributes to the ‘rapt austerity’ of ‘a deeply spiritual figure’. I also want to honour his stature, and to offer some theological and musical notes on someone who was only a little older than I when he died, who wrote beautiful, reticent, exotic and extravagant music, and whose life ran parallel to mine throughout.

His work first came to my attention when I heard, on ‘cassette tape’, theDivine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, written soon after his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. While retaining traditional modulations, it did so in a way that dusted away accretions of ancient cobwebs, allowing the music to breathe and shine. The fresh voice of a new singing was being heard in the land.

Two Orthodox streams have overlapped and converged in the past forty years. In music, first, since the late 70s, Tavener’s oeuvre has run alongside that of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and the Roman Catholic Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, Tavener already having acknowledged his debt to late (Orthodox) Stravinsky and (Roman Catholic) Messiaen. The other, theological, stream has included the literally profound public voice of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Antony Bloom), the theological writings of e.g. Alexander Schmemann, Vladimir Lossky, Hilarion Alfeyev and Andrew Louth, and the monastic contribution of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) of Mt Athos and the Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt, Essex.

These two streams, musical and theological, have introduced Eastern Orthodoxy to the West in a way that no one could have guessed forty years ago, and in a way that has been life-giving to the desiccated souls of the West; as if to show that the apparently irrelevant ancient Orthodoxy which survived and nourished Christian believers during Communism’s ice-cold strangulation of Eastern Europe has now become one of the major wells that again nourish Christian spiritual life, thought – and music!

Gorecki, who died in 2010, has largely been known for a single work, hisThird Symphony (the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), a work of exquisite plangency and haunting pathos, which painfully extends Benjamin Britten’s 1963 incorporation of First World War poems in his shatteringWar Requiem to the Holocaustic horrors of the Second World War, focussed on Mary in a way that is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s ‘Beauty will save the world’. This work, though composed in 1976, only hit the Western market in 1991, becoming virtual ‘Top of the Pops’ for months on end. The slow, contemplative pace and long ascending scales bear an aching pain, and a resigned acceptance of agonising suffering.

Tavener and Pärt are both inked in their conversion to Orthodoxy. In the 60s and 70s both were writing brash, trendy, populist music: Pärt garish avant-garde serialist symphonies, and Tavener the bizarre pop-opera The Whale (Jonah and...). Tavener converted from Presbyterianism, Pärt from Lutheranism; Pärt hit a musical dead-end in his writing (‘a position of complete despair... lack[ing] the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note’, in Paul Hillier’s words), and emerged with his own astonishingly delicate style of minimalist ‘tintinnabulation’, while Tavener suffered his own ‘composer’s block’ on the death of his mother, but soon, as if from nowhere, on his conversion, began writing like an Orthodox priest.  In fact, they both derived elements of their very different styles from Renaissance polyphony (Sheppard, Tallis, Victoria) as well as from traditional Plainsong and Orthodox liturgy. Even when it might seem as if Tavener’s music bears no relation to anything else, as in his The Protecting Veil, the soaring luxuriant polyphony of an extreme high florescent soprano virtual coloratura – usually the pristine voice of his wonderful soloist Patricia Rozario – points to the realms above, where true joys are to be found.

But while, for both composers, their Orthodox faith was fundamental and decisive, they lived quite different lives; Pärt is reclusive and monastic, Tavener was (as Tom Service suggested) a ‘hedonistic ascetic’/ ‘ascetic hedonist’. Musically, for Tavener, modes, rather than keys, are determinative, sliding in and out of major and minor ‘key’-frames, as I shall note below; theologically, music was for him inseparable from faith, composition indistinguishable from pilgrimage. The high elevation of the female voice expresses ethereal, other-worldly qualities of yearning; the extended, rapturous, straining feel of The Protecting Veil high up on the neck of the cello points to both the highest and deepest longings of the human heart; while the double-bass male voices that undergird and provide the low-note ‘drones’ or ‘isons’ of Orthodox singing also sound the depths of human being. Tavener explores the high and low extremities of our existence, hand-cupping them both as gifts from, and offerings to, God.

But we should not undervalue the contribution to Tavener of his spiritual guide, Mother Thekla, who accompanied him through much of the second half of his life, following his own mother’s death in 1985. Mother Thekla was Co-Founder and at one time Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby, near Whitby, North Yorkshire, and was Tavener’s intellectual and spiritual inspiration, creative muse and librettist, dying in 2011. Though composed in response to a commission from Steven Isserlis, it was Mother Thekla who suggested the theme ofThe Protecting Veil for the feast of The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, and it was she who subsequently wrote the libretti for Mary of Egypt(1992), Song for AtheneWe Shall See Him As He Is and The Apocalypse(all 1993), and Fall and Resurrection (1999). His debt to her was immense, as was equally the break with her when he began to explore, firstly, Fritjhof Schuon’s universalist philosophy, and then Hindu, Sufi and Muslim spirituality in The Veil of the Temple (2003) and The Beautiful Names, the 99 names of Allah in the Qu’ran (2007).

Alongside Tavener’s wife Maryanna’s sad loss of a husband and his three children’s loss of a father, Patricia Rozario must also be quite bereft. She sang most of his major works with an unmistakable purity and sharpness of tone, as if floating in and out of this world, as if she were ‘a feather on the breath of God’. The piercing radiance of her voice gave him voice, gave the world voice, gave God an entrée into the West... and herself conveyed the beauty she sang of, with such sublime, quiet, ecstatic calm.

But what has been so striking is not only the appeal of Tavener’s music to the ‘general public’, but also the fact that some of the most popular works were originally written for very personal occasions. Many people’s favourite Tavener piece – The Lamb – was one of the earliest to bring him to people’s attention, and to introduce them to a different ethos of singing, to a simple interiority. First sung in the King’s College, Cambridge, Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1982, it had been written previously in a single afternoon and dedicated to his nephew Simon for his third birthday. His 1993 Song for Athene was written in response to the death of his young friend Athene Hariades in a cycling accident, before being sung at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 and captivating the nation (apart from the television commentators, who seemed to ignore it). Despite being Britain’s best-selling classical disc in 1992, and now being part of the regular repertoire for ‘cello, The Protecting Veil is actually a very private and inward work, even – as a contemplation on Mary, who ‘ponders/ contemplates these things in her heart’ – transfiguring the entire conception into a contemplation on contemplation.


But, in order to illustrate the fusion of simplicity and the numinous that compels so many of Tavener’s  listeners, I want to take a brief glance at the music of one or two of his miniatures.

The Lamb, though very well known, is probably not much studied as a score by many, but it is clever, despite coming to him in one piece, as a kind of spiritual lullaby. It begins G B B A A F# G G, and we think we are in G major; but the next line introduces a second voice, which after a unison note heads straight to what could be D# below a B above (hinting at the key of E minor), but is in fact written as Eb. We are in a key of unknowing. In fact, the two voices now perform a kind of spiral helix, or a Möbius strip, in mirror-image fashion, as if two Hornby trains on parallel tracks were switching points, separating and then crossing back over again, in a musical inversion, revolving around the five-note pentatonic scale of Eb F G A and B. There follow unison notes (G), straightforward major thirds (F A), bare augmented fifths (Eb B), and dissonant tone-clashes (F# Ab); but the subsequent four-part harmony then establishes, to our relief, the suspected relative key of E minor. But what comes over, despite all the movement and shift, harmonic clashes and repetition, is simplicity and calm, beauty and rest, exploration and stasis, expansion and contraction – in theological terms, the equipoise between eternal flow and peace, and divine unchangeability and mutability, suggestive of the fascinating title of a recent study by Rob Lister: God is Impassible and Impassioned. Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (2013).

The words of Song for Athene, selected by Mother Thekla from the Orthodox Funeral Service and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are held together by a series of Alleluias.  It begins, innocently, in a simple F major plainchant flow: F G A Bb G FE F; but, second time round, turns to the minor key: F G Ab Bb G FE F, modulating into the relative keys of Ab major and Db major, and for much of the piece sung over a held low bass note of F (the ‘drone’ or ‘ison’ of Orthodox liturgy). Here is a fluidity of major and minor typical of Eastern Orthodox music, based on modal tonalities, not on key-signatures. (In Western music, I think of some powerful ‘minor’ tunes for joyful words: Jesu, meine FreudeAberystwyth and Ebenezer.)

The opening instruction is: ‘Very tender, with great inner stillness and serenity’, and the concluding instruction, with an enormous crescendo, is ‘With resplendent joy in the Resurrection’. Now ‘great inner stillness and serenity’ is precisely what Orthodoxy means by hesychia in prayer: receiving God in the cave of the heart, and quietening the soul in the presence of God. It is also not surprising, but deeply appropriate, that the Resurrection, so much the heart of Orthodox faith, is highlighted right at the end.

A third, much less well known, played and heard piece is God is with us – (Christmas Proclamation). This powerful evocative anthem has sounded out every Christmas Day morning since I first heard it, and I do recommend it precisely as ‘Christmas Proclamation’. It is simply stunning. A long, slow, repetitive plainchant, based on Isa 6: 2 and 9, is taken from the Orthodox service of Compline for Christmas Day:

God is with us.
Hear ye people, even to the uttermost end of the earth.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light...
For unto us a child is born...

Then, after the lengthy and sombre evocation of ‘darkness’ and ‘the shadow of death’, with alternating solo and choral voices, there emerges a huge, fortissimo exclamatory statement, sung three times (!):

Christ is born!

But, following the lengthy introduction in C major, and the closure of the first statement on a grand C major voiced chord, there erupts a shock C#minor chord on the organ, in enharmonic modulation. From C# minor, Tavener then moves up a semitone to begin the next repeat in D minor; but, where that repetition ends on an E minor sung chord, he offers a second, massive organ chord of E major (first, major to minor; then, minor to major); while the final choir chord of G major is followed by – ! – a third, now correspondingly affirmative, G major organ chord. The power of the final minute is amazing. Three thunderous organ chords testify that the Nativity of Christ confronts the world, clashing powerfully with all existing expectations, and blazing with Light in the universe so as to eradicate and confront all darkness, and to fulfil and challenge all our expectations. They point, like John the Baptist’s bony fingers, to the sheer solid facticity of the Incarnation. It is as if Tavener has offered his own answer to his desire:

“I think there are an awful lot of artists around who are very good at leading us into hell. I would rather someone would show me the way to paradise”.


God is with us brilliantly celebrates and opens the way to Paradise through the Word become flesh – and music.  In fact, much of Tavener’s music is about paradise: the hope and longing, the eros (cf. his Ikon of Eros of 2001), the high melismatic aspiration, the low ground-work of the soul, the spare writing, the exuberance and ecstasy – this is vision pure and simple. Of course, the Marian emphasis is strong; but this, too, is an expression of God’s condescension to humanity, to an ordinary woman made unique.


Many in fact regard the Funeral Ikos as one of his best works, so I conclude by quoting the final words in gratitude for a huge vision composed with spiritual, intellectual and musical integrity, and for the way in which he communicated Orthodox Christian faith so counter-culturally through his music. By contrast with the many ways in which much Western Christian theology has accommodated itself to the spirit of the age in recent decades, Tavener’s music reminds us that it is we who should be accommodating ourselves to, and imbibing, the enormous sublimity and simplicity of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

With ecstasy are we inflamed
if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder,
that there is Paradise,

wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry
Aloud thus unto God. Alleluia.

Some fine CD samplers

John Tavener – Innocence Sony SK66613 (1995)

Choral Music of John Tavener Naxos 8.555256 (2000)

The Best of John Tavener EMI 5859152 (2004)

John Tavener – A Portrait Naxos 8.558152-53 (2004)

3 thoughts on “Contemplating Tavener”

  1. To ‘Pluralist’: I do not deny some aspects of your major drift. Orthodoxy does indeed contain within itself a historic and deep tendency towards universalism. Tavener represented that inclination, as you state, and was indeed increasingly attracted by Hindu & Muslim themes. For some, Orthodoxy precisely represents the vastness of an understanding of God which allows the freedom for other ‘languages’ to be used. Obviously, there comes a point at which personal integrity gives way in one direction or another; but my final quote – among many others – still, by its objectivity, rather than by any one individual’s private conviction, show us how Orthodoxy invites us to allow ourselves to be drawn more deeply by the One who draws us; Orthodoxy also has its deep, fundamental, precise particularities.

  2. Philip, thank you for a beautifully written and insightful tribute. While my church work settings have afforded me limited opportunities to teach Tavener’s music (but, when it did, oh how my volunteer singers were inspired and went above and beyond to pull it off!) my own personal/musical/contemplative life has been marked by profound encounters with (recorded, broadcast, or in-person) performances of his works that consistently touched me in a way that gave me ‘food for the journey’ and more joy in praising our Lord. Thanks, again.

  3. I would contest whether in Taverner’s music it is ‘we’ who should be accommodating ourselves to, and imbibing, the enormous sublimity and simplicity of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The music follows the fashion of minimalism that is wider than the religious composers mentioned, and extends to many others, and furthermore the mentioned break is significant, so that in Tavener’s work there was increasing use of Hindu and Muslim themes and theologically he said he was becoming more universalist. Doctrinally he was quite agnostic. As an individual it is quite possible to be attached to something like Orthodoxy as a resource and institution, but to be somewhat agnostic in your own personal outlook. His music was increasingly broad for this reason.

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