Sir John Kenneth Tavener, who passed away last November, aged 69, began recording music for The Beatles’ Apple label in 1970, before becoming established as one of this country’s most celebrated composers, famous for his transcendent orchestral and choral works and for having his music performed at Princess Diana’s funeral. Here, Will Stokes looks at the intangible division between classical and popular music cultures through the prism of Tavener’s extraordinary life and work.
How blurred is the line between ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music today? The answer, one might deduce from even a cursory look at trends of the last decade, is increasingly. Post-rock acts like Mogwai or Sigur Rós; talismanic folksters like Su an Stevens or Andrew Bird; that mysterious figure known as the ‘arranger’, like Owen Pallett or Nico Muhly; such artists demonstrate the fertility of broadening one’s influences beyond the classic pop or rock canon. It seems that the very sensibilities governing contemporary music making are becoming increasingly (and excitingly) mobile and holistic. I wonder if, for instance, recording the driving power chords for Creep, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood ever anticipated sound-tracking a film like P.T. Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood with a full orchestra. Interestingly, for Anderson’s film, Greenwood chose to nestle Arvo Pärt’s Fratres between his own compositions, as if to challenge the untrained ear to differentiate between the work of two composers: one previously responsible for works like Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) and the other for OK Computer (1997).
I’m not saying that popular musicians have never appreciated the music of the classical world before, but I am pointing out that, thankfully, it’s finally become fashionable to be an unapologetic enthusiast for the orchestral repertoire. The late Sir John Tavener is a prime example of a composer who has facilitated this, leaving a remarkable and essential legacy that ripples out far beyond the confines of the traditional concert hall. His work almost certainly challenges any artist in any genre to ensure their musical diet isn’t selling them short, especially those still believing contemporary classical music to be somehow inaccessible, or at least alien.
From the dawn of his career, Tavener defied categorisation: it would be logical to associate the devout Orthodox Christian composer, who dismissed Mahler as “vulgar”, with the most highbrow musical culture imaginable; yet Tavener’s initial rise was due in no small part to a quotidian encounter between his builder brother, Roger, and Ringo Starr, on whose house he was working. Subsequently, Tavener’s Old Testament cantata The Whale was released on the Beatles’ own Apple Records in 1970, and the ‘maverick’ composer went on to teach at Trinity College of Music and rub shoulders with the likes of Benjamin Britten, gaining more and more recognition as his career progressed to yield spiritually imbued works like Celtic Requiem (1971), A Gentle Spirit (1977) and The Lamb (1982).
A knighthood and an Ivor Novello Award helped canoes Tavener in the popular consciousness, alongside the likes of Arvo Pärt and Henrik Gorécki, as one of the key so-called ‘Holy Minimalists’. Tavener also had bestowed upon him what might be seen as the greatest and most solemn honour granted to a composer: the task of articulating a nation’s mourning as Princess Diana’s co n departed Westminster Abbey in 1997. Thirty-two million people listened to Tavener’s composition, Song For Athene, before falling unanimously silent for one minute. Originally written for a young actress killed in a car accident in 1993, it’s an awe-inspiring work which commences with impossibly low, unerringly steady male voices, soon joined by the shrill and urgent high-end of the choir, going beyond sentimentality and raw emotion to offer a deep and terrible contemplation of the nature of mortality itself. It made Elton John’s Abbey rendition of a mawkishly reworked Candle In The Wind sound about as profound as Happy Birthday by comparison.
Let me make it clear, I am not advocating musical snobbery. I can’t stomach classical aficionados refusing to acknowledge the genii operating in contemporary music – the Thom Yorkes or Bob Dylans of this world. By the same token, I cannot help but notice the undeniable gravitas with which many popular musicians talk about their, well, not popular influences: the Holy Minimalists, John Cage (just listen to any interview with Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin) or even figures like Gershwin or Debussy. While Jack White talks about his favourite song (Grinnin’ In Your Face by Son House, in case you didn’t know) as one that ‘meant everything about rock and roll’, Bjork (for whom Tavener wrote 2004’s Prayer of the Heart, incidentally) extolls Arvo Pärt, declaring that the Estonian composer, ‘in a very sensitive way, has got the whole battle of this century inside him.’ Such adulation is not uttered lightly, and surely cannot be ignored.
I personally remember, as a child, hearing my father play a recording of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil (1989) and being positively frightened, despite not even understanding exactly what it was in the music that frightened me, or why. To this day, The Protecting Veil is the only piece of music to have kept me awake at night by its ethereal power alone.
All of this is to say that composers like John Tavener are not simply the mere providers of context for various kinds of contemporary musicians, nor should they be seen as part of a culture running parallel to the one that teaches teens not to touch a guitar until they’ve listened to Dark Side Of The Moon, Blood On The Tracks and Abbey Road. Composers like Tavener are timeless and genre-defying giants – or, in the words of Grammy president Neil Portnow (in tribute to Tavener), ‘noble, magnificent and inspirational’.
It may not be as fashionable or archly cool for a rock star to declare ‘I was there when The Protecting Veil premiered at the Proms in 1989’, but, in this writer’s opinion, John Tavener is a genuinely iconic figure, and will surely remain stationed at contemporary composition’s high table. He deserves our enduring deference for charting new and rich ways of communicating with the human soul.