Sir John Tavener on religion and ill health
- 24 June 2013
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Sir John Tavener defied doctors' expectations when he resumed composing after a heart attack. Regarded as one of Britain's greatest living composers, he talks about how the possibility of "sudden death at any time" has changed his music, his outlook and his faith.
When Sir John Tavener suffered a heart attack in Switzerland in December 2007, he had emergency bypass surgery and spent four months in intensive care.
"They didn't know whether my brain had been damaged," he says.
"My wife had flown over, and she played me Mozart. And I apparently, in my unconscious state, began conducting. So that brought me round again."
The power of music came to Sir John's aid in his hospital bed. That music should connect with something deep within him is perhaps not so far-fetched given his lifelong devotion to harnessing the power of music himself.
The composer has achieved a popularity that is rare in the classical world with choral works that are marked out by their pared-down beauty and intense spirituality.
Music has always been sacred to Sir John, who converted to the Orthodox church in 1977 and has said that "my way towards God has been to write music".
In 1992, The Protecting Veil, for solo cello and strings, topped the classical charts for several months. In 1997, Sir John's Song For Athene was played as the coffin of Princess Diana was carried out of Westminster Abbey during her funeral.
And his A New Beginning was chosen to see in the new century at the end of 1999 in the Millennium Dome in London.
Now he is premiering three new works, all written after his heart attack, at the Manchester International Festival.
"Nobody in the hospital thought I'd get this far," the 69-year-old says. "They didn't think I'd write again."
The new works include one based on a "rather terrifying" short story by Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which the central character seeks redemption as he stares into the void of death.
"That was one of the first pieces I wrote after I'd been ill," Sir John says. "And in a way there is a sort of autobiographical slant to it, although I've ritualised it very much.
"It's an extraordinary study of physical agony. He's reviewing his miserable life and then attaining a kind of half peace just at the end."
Another new work, The Love Duet, is "some of the most ecstatic music that I've ever written", he says, taken from what the composer describes as a pantomime about the life of the Hindu deity Krishna.
The third, If Ye Love Me, will be performed by the festival's Sacred Sounds Women's Choir, which draws members from six faiths in the city.
"I was very happy to do it because I think actually all religions have reached a stage of maturity, therefore decay, and, up to a point, senility," Sir John says.
"Therefore to get back to the basis of them is something very exciting to be able to do."
Since the start of the 2000s, Sir John has been open to inspiration from other faiths and has looked beyond his Christian devotion to Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Native American beliefs.
"I always go back to what Plato said, that Heaven and Earth were once joined and there was one single primordial being, God," he says.
"And one understands from that, that all religions are equally true, or equally false, I suppose you could say, depending on your perspective.
"I think there will always be a possibility that God doesn't exist because He is infinitude and into that infinitude must come that possibility."
During his most recent illness, he has "had a lot of time to think about what I really feel about these things", Sir John says. "I suppose it's grown me up spiritually."
Does the suggestion that God may not exist reflect a crisis of faith? "When I became ill in Switzerland and I became conscious for the first time, the religious zeal that I had before, I found had gone," he replies.
"But so had my ability to write music. It was about three years without doing anything, I just wanted to lie in a darkened room. And the faith came back in a different way, with writing.
"I think I've been very lucky all my life because the writing and the faith seem to go together."
Sir John has suffered ill health for much of his life. He had a stroke in 1979, and in 1990 was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary condition that can cause heart defects. He had heart surgery the following year.
These days, composing is a welcome distraction from constant abdominal pain, he says, although he cannot work for more than two hours a day without becoming exhausted.
He claims that, "deep down", he is grateful that his health problems have given him more time to listen to other music and made him a "more sensitive and more caring" person.
"I'm much closer to my family than I've ever been," he says. "I give more time to them. I live through them more. And I feel I only want to write if I feel there's something urgent I have to say.
"The music's become more condensed, I'd say. More terse. I tended to write works that lasted, like seven hours with The Veil of the Temple [in 2003]. But now I would say nothing I write is over 20 minutes."
Despite the physical impediments, is he trying to write as much as he can while he can?
"I've always been aware of mortality because I've always had ill health most of my life," he replies.
"But I suppose much more now because the cardiologist always says to me, 'Sudden death at any time.'
"He's not very cheerful," Sir John adds with a chuckle. "He's a dour Scot. I think he has to cover himself.
"Yes, I'm obviously living with that possibility all the time."
The concert of Sir John Tavener's music is at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 7 July.