Or...  A Tale of Taverner and Tavener - to be precise!

Two great composers, both English and both deeply spiritual yet disturbing the established religious orders of their respective times, they lived nearly five centuries apart. In fact, John Tavener (b,1944) has even claimed to be a direct descendent of his near-namesake John Taverner (circa 1490-1545), the great Tudor composer from around the time of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Christopher Tye and other masters of the English Renaissance.

The Tudor Taverner

Despite the considerable historical confusion about the Tudor Taverner and his time, he is considered to be perhaps the greatest English composer of early sixteenth-century, who influenced other luminaries of the era. Taverner wrote several Latin Masses, Magnificat settings, Motets, numerous votive antiphons, and is rightly credited with pioneering the English tradition of In nomine, the instrumental consort music, which became very popular and was later championed by Orlando Gibbons, Tye, Tallis and Henry Purcell, among others. Taverner rose to become the Master of Chorister at Cardinal College now better known as Christ church,Oxford. He was later branded as a heretic following his involvement with the Lutherans who were active there. He had a lucky escape in 1528, on the strength of his defenders’ argument that ” he was only a musician”!

Taverner did not hold any official post after his departure from Oxford in 1530. Following all the ensuing controversies and upheavals he finally abandoned music and retired to a comfortable staid life in Boston, Lincolnshire, where he died around 1545.

Taverner’s music has survived five centuries, outliving the religious and political upheavals of the time that so severely stymied his musical composition during his life. He embodies the first historical conflict between an artist’s conscience and his art, which failed to diminish the greatness of his musical legacy.

The Twentieth Century Tavener

Insofar as he is still alive and musically active today, Tavener belongs to the twenty first century as well. He is a deeply spiritual man like Taverner, except his conflicts are not with the authorities but confined within the spiritual domain. In this age of freedom, reason and tolerance he is obviously much luckier than his predecessor.

Tavener burst into the scene with The Whale, the cantata for soloists, chorus, electronics and other props; this was an immediate success with the public and critics alike. This,        In Alium and later on, The Lamb, made him the wunderkind of twentieth century English music.

In addition, his celebrity, with cult status and adulation following the funeral of Diana the Princess of Wales, helped too. His Song for Athene, originally written for the premature death of a friend, was the concluding Alleluia at Princess Diana’s funeral service, and made him a household name.

100 Essential Recordings

The Beatles’ Ringo Starr knew Tavener through his brother, and had earlier introduced him to John Lennon who helped publish his early major works, including The Whale and  the Celtic Requiem which were released on the Beatles’ Apple label, marking Tavener’s debut on best selling discs. His works were subsequently performed on sold out Prom concerts in London, and he received all possible honors and artistic accolades, culminating in a special millennium knighthood. All this has propelled him to a rock star status, so unusual for an uncompromising classical musician.

Yet Tavener was also having serious crises of faith, much more than his predecessor. Coming from Presbyterian family, he was later fascinated by Roman Catholicism and was immersed in its liturgical rituals and dramas. Soon afterwards, however, the spiritual malaise grew, and he became more and more disillusioned with Catholicism. His opera Thérèse was attacked by some as blasphemous. Soon he was drawn to the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and was eventually received into the Russian Orthodox Church. But his spirituality has always been evolving towards a more syncretic and pantheistic ideal all the time.

Concurrent with Tavener’s crises of faith, were his personal and health crises. He suffered a stroke, had an auto accident, and long periods of ill health. A few years later Tavener was critically ill again and had to undergo major heart surgery during which he nearly died. But he miraculously survived, recovered, married for the second time, apparently happily, had two children, bought a house and settled down in his adopted home in Greece.

Work in Progress

Art, for a living composer, is always about work in progress.  John Tavener, notwithstanding his ill health and spiritual crises all his life, has been very prolific. His style has evolved over the years, the idiom has become more direct. The simpler, often modal and linear, musical language of Mary of Egypt is in stark contrast to his earlier serial, atonal or ‘modern’ western music. His all embracing spirituality has, at different stages of his life, led him to the Byzantine Tone System, Sufi music and Hindu Ragas, often requiring the performers to learn microtonal music in complex shifting meters, or playing non-traditional instruments unfamiliar in the West.

Above all and beyond everything else, silence. That has been Tavener’s obsession and resonates with his deep universal spirituality. This has led some to attack his “forays into other traditions”, which probably implied Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhist philosophies. One new work, Towards Silence, was finally released, and performed in New York in 2009. This music for “four String quartets and a Tibetan Bowl” is a spatially and musically complex piece with Hindu philosophical underpinnings, and received mixed reviews.

Taverner’s most recent work : Popule Meus was completed in 2009, and was published and premiered the following year. It’s apparently less controversial, a sort of meditation on Christian and Jerwish text “ O my people...” for soloists, with Cello, Timpani and orchestra. As with many of Taverner’s similar works, it’s inspired by his deeply held religious and philosophical convictions.
The jury is still out.