Friday, 27 June 2014

John Tavener's Sacred Music

Sir John Tavener 2001 Oil on canvas 112cmx81cm, by Michael Taylor, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
In 1968, aged fourteen and keen to hear a wider range of music I began buying albums by diverse acts such as Family, Van der Graaf Generator, The Beatles, Cream, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and two that stuck out like sore thumbs. They were John and Yoko’s “Two Virgins” with its cover featuring a nude John and Yoko hid beneath an over sleeve which revealed only their faces in vignette and John Tavener’s “The Whale.” John and Yoko’s album disturbed me deeply but not for its inspired genius but rather for its god-awfulness. Him noodling at a piano, singing occasionally whilst Yoko did what Yoko normally does so well, but on this recording sounding like a Goon with colic. Tavener’s piece I found rather a plinky plonky – a lot of discordant noise and silly sound effects. For posh, so-called classical music, it seemed rather pointless. Funny enough both albums were released on the Beatles Apple label. I was right about John and Yoko’s debut but very wrong about John Tavener’s. “The Whale’ has grown on me. It is rather good.
John Tavener:

John Tavener died the latter part of 2013 just before his 70th birthday. It is a damn shame he didn’t live longer. He was already established as one of the UK’s foremost composers, often being compared favourably to Arvo P├írt. Like the Estonian composer, Tavener’s work had spiritual overtones. The following article comes from the Guardian and is written by Steven Isserlis the cellist who commissioned and performed another of John Tavener’s works – “The Protecting Veil.”
I first met John Tavener, who died this week, in the late 80s, when I asked him to write a short musical piece for me. The result, rather to my surprise (but even more to my delight), was a huge work, The Protecting Veil. It was written in a burst of inspiration, and at astonishing speed, and, in the end, was commissioned for the BBC Proms and first performed there in 1989. It was in the second half of a marathon programme, which also contained the first performance of a symphony by Minna Keal, and John and I were both convinced that The Protecting Veil would be overlooked by a tired audience.

We need not have worried; the piece became an instant classic. For the next couple of years, wherever I played, people would ask me: "When are you going to record that beautiful piece by John Tavener?" Eventually, the arrangements were made, and we did record it; it leapt to the top of the classical charts.

Why did it capture people's imaginations? I believe that it was because the beauty came from within; many people write beautiful music – but the music of such intense rapture, such aching fervour, is rare indeed.

John wasn't writing to please people – at the time he composed The Protecting Veil, it was many years since he'd had a major success. He was writing the music he had to write, fired by his love of Russian Orthodox music, and his conviction of the importance of purity and simplicity. He was not a minimalist; The Protecting Veil is a deeply romantic work, even if its proportions allow for many repetitions. The form is uncomplicated but satisfying; the whole work written in sections starting with each note of a descending F major scale.

Will his music last? I certainly hope so – and I believe that it will. Not every piece was an unqualified success, but there is at the core of his music a power of communication, a sense of theatre, a love of truth, that moves people deeply.

I can see no reason why John Tavener’s work will not last. It has the ability to connect very easily to people, even those like me (Tavener was a devout Christian) who spurn such doctrine, with a depth of meditative enquiry, a sort of sacred, holy mysticism that somehow goes way beyond the shallow realms of monotheism and raises a sense of beatific calm. I would dismiss any notions of minimalism; that confuses rather than illuminates John Tavener's achievements. I know John would, if it were only possible, chastise me for saying that his Christian Orthodoxy has all the hallmarks of my own Pantheism.
Tavener was instantly recognisable by his long flowing locks with his receding hairline and by forever wearing white suits when seen in public. A gentle man and a gentleman, genteel, refined and a bit posh but still a man of integrity.

Fellow composer – another Englishman, John Rutter, describes his abilities best, Rutter suggests Tavener “as of having a very rare gift, of being able to bring an audience to a deep silence.” I would have to concur. It is the silences found in his work that exemplifies its authority.
"In 1990, all of a sudden I dreamed music that I could barely hear.  It became my second string quartet, The Last Sleep of the Virgin.  It came to me just before I went in for major heart surgery."


'The Protecting Veil' is a delicious piece. It begins with the impeccable Steven Isserlis conjuring emotion from his cello. His skills match perfectly the written score  conceived by Tavener. Such sweet notes flow drawing a rich mix of sensations: contemplation, reverence, questing, a seeking of not so much truth but understanding. I appreciate Tavener was Christian but the sense I get is as much Pantheist as it is Monotheist.  Whatever, the end results are truly enchanting, haunting and sometimes dark but forever spiritual. It is a remarkable recording, one of my favourites.

Tavener’s life was comparatively short when compared to the long life modern man seems blessed with – he was only 69 when he died. He suffered ill-health for a great many years having a stroke in his thirties which was followed by heart surgery then an operation to remove a tumour before having two heart attacks and then, to cap it all, was diagnosed as suffering from Marfan Syndrome. His music was accessible and clean. I highly recommend 'The Protecting Veil.'
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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