John Tavener dies at 69; composer best known for spiritual pieces

John Tavener dies at 69; composer best known for spiritual pieces
English composer John Tavener receives a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 35th International Istanbul Music Festival in 2007. Tavener died at 69 on Tuesday.
(Serkan Senturk, Associated Press)

Composer John Tavener, whose works ranged from angry, dissonant cantatas to achingly beautiful choral works sung around the world during holidays, died Tuesday at his home in Child Okeford in southern England, according to his publisher, Chester Music.

He was 69 and had been suffering from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that contributed to his towering height — he stood 6 feet 6 inches tall — and weakened heart.


Tavener first came to fame with his raucous 1968 cantata “The Whale” that was so admired by John Lennon it was released on the Beatles’ Apple record label. But Tavener’s best known compositions are meditative, spiritual pieces rooted in the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity he embraced in his 30s, as well as other religions.

Among those works are the 1993 “Song for Athene” that was played during the funeral for Princess Diana in 1997, and a quiet 1982 setting of William Blake’s “The Lamb” often performed at Christmastime. His music was also used in films such as Terrence Malick’s 2011 “The Tree of Life” and Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 “Children of Men.”


And even though his compositions became far more gentle than in his early years, it didn’t keep him from experimenting with the form and challenging audiences. His 2003 “The Veil of the Temple,” for example, is a choir piece of epic proportions — it takes seven hours to perform.

Tavener, knighted in 2000, suffered numerous medical setbacks in recent years, including heart attacks, but it didn’t dampen his humor. Earlier this year he told a reporter from London’s Guardian newspaper that doctors couldn’t pinpoint a cause of some of the pain he was enduring. “All they ever say is, ‘You’re lucky to be here at all!’” Tavener said, “which is charming.”

He observed even those difficulties through a spiritual lens. “Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way,” he said. “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”

John Kenneth Tavener was born Jan. 28, 1944, in London. At an early age, he studied piano and organ, and began composing works for a Presbyterian church where his father was an organist, according to Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and his 1966 cantata “Cain and Abel” won the Prince Rainier III of Monaco Prize.


“The Whale,” based on the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, was debuted by the London Sinfonietta. It included electronic sounds, noisemakers used by crowds at soccer matches, a whip and bullhorns. “‘The Whale’ is a piece written by an angry young man,” Tavener said in 2004, as quoted by the Guardian. “I was angry because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms.”

The attention from the Beatles went a long way toward giving the piece notoriety. But Tavener wasn’t one to use that to build a career. “Tavener never capitalized on his early celebrity,” Los Angeles Times classical music critic Mark Swed wrote in 1995. “And once he joined the Orthodox Church in the 1970s, his music became exclusively devotional.”

Tavener turned his back on modernism in music. “Although it sounds very extreme, I do believe that music in the West has lost its way in a spiritual sense since before the Renaissance,” he told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

He felt so far from the mainstream that he nearly turned down a commission that ended up sparking renewed fame. “The Protecting Veil” concerto for cello and orchestra was a hit when it debuted at a 1989 BBC Proms concert, and the recording was a bestseller.


“I was completely taken aback by the interest in the piece,” Tavener said in the Globe and Mail interview. “But then I realized that if it meant so much to so many people, then perhaps I should be in the marketplace, and shouldn’t be withdrawing.”

Still, he could stir controversy. His 2004 “The Beautiful Names,” based on the 99 names of Allah in the Koran, was commissioned by Tavener fan Prince Charles. But when it was performed by the BBC Symphony and Chorus at Westminster Cathedral, it drew protesters from Christian groups angry it was being done in such a prominent Christian landmark.

In more recent years, Tavener steered away from works that were so large in scope. “Nothing I write now seems to go beyond 20 minutes,” he said in the Guardian interview. “My language seems to be coming out much more tersely, much more compressed.”

This summer, he was working on a new piece based on the Leo Tolstoy novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” about the lonely, painful death of a government official. “Right on the last page, there’s a moment of transcendence,” Tavener said. “He is shouting and screaming in agony — and suddenly it all goes.”

Tavener related it to his own situation. “Having this pain all the time,” he said, “has made me realize it’s part of one’s existence. It’s something one just has to go through and try and transcend.”

He is survived by his wife, Maryanna, and three children.

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