Obituary: Sir John Tavener

John Tavener Sir John's religious beliefs drove his music

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Sir John Tavener was a composer who wove spirituality and mysticism into his writing.

His early avant garde works contrasted strongly with the later pieces for which he became better known.

He was born on 28 January 1944 in London, a direct descendant of the 16th Century composer John Taverner.

A skilled pianist and organist, he went to school in Highgate, North London, before going on to study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Tavener first came to public attention in 1968 with the premiere of his oratorio, The Whale.

The work, based on the biblical story of Jonah, was played at the debut concert of the London Sinfonietta and later recorded on the Beatles' Apple label.

In 1977, he became a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, having been persuaded that Eastern traditions retained an essence that had been lost in the west.

Already a deeply religious man, his faith became an increasingly important part of his life and works and he once described music as "the essence of God".

"Through the very fact that I write sacred music, my concern with music and God take place all the time," he said.

His works from this period reflect this new influence in his life, particularly The Lamb, based on the William Blake poem of the same name, and the choral work Resurrection.

His music was introduced to a new audience in 1989 when the premiere of The Protecting Veil was played at the BBC Proms by the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1992, he was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize - and again in 1997 - ultimately losing out to Primal Scream and drum and bass producer Roni Size.

In 1994, he celebrated his 50th birthday with The Apocalypse, another major commission for the Proms.

The popularity of his works was highlighted in 1997 when his piece A Song for Athene, was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Music for the Millennium

Tavener dedicated his piece Eternity's Sunrise, based on poetry by William Blake, to the memory of the late Princess.

The premiere of A New Beginning played out the final minutes of the 20th Century at the Millennium Dome in London and he was knighted in the New Year's Honours List.

Five days later, Fall & Resurrection received its premiere at St Paul's Cathedral and was broadcast on both television and radio.

Sir John Tavener & Sir Paul McCartney The Beatles were early converts to his Tavener's music

His work remained much in demand with the San Francisco-based Chanticleer commissioning Lamentations and Praises.

Their subsequent recording won the Grammy award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2003.

Although he remained an Orthodox Christian, Tavener increasingly explored the beliefs of other faiths in his music.

The Veil of the Temple uses both Christian and Islamic texts while Hymn of Dawn contains Hindu, Sufi and Jewish influences as well as the music of native American tradition.

In 2007, the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered his work The Beautiful Names, which is based on the 99 names of Allah from the Koran.

Ill health

His Requiem, commissioned for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and performed at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in February 2008, won widespread acclaim.

Ill health, however, dogged him most of his life. He suffered from Marfan Syndrome, an inherited condition that attacks the body's connective tissue.

Having survived a major stroke at the age of 30, he suffered a heart attack in December 2007.

Critics often suggested that Tavener's music was not influenced by religion but was merely a substitute for it, complaining that his minimalism was just "simple music for simple desires."

Sir John Tavener & Neville Marriner Sir John Tavener (right) with Neville Marriner in 1970

Tavener dismissed this as pure cynicism. "We're literally living in a dark age," he once said. "Anything that comes from anywhere that has a spark of the divine is worth taking."

In June 2013, he premiered three new works, all written after his heart attack, at the Manchester International Festival.

They included 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.

He told the BBC at the time: "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 continued: "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."

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