Sir John Tavener: Tributes paid to composer

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Media caption,
Hardtalk's Sarah Montague spoke to the musician about his influences

Tributes have been paid to Sir John Tavener, a leading British composer of the past 50 years, who has died at 69.

Fellow composer John Rutter told BBC Radio 3 that Sir John, known for his spiritual music, "was absolutely touched by genius at every point".

In 1992 The Protecting Veil topped the classical charts for several months and in 1997 his Song For Athene was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana.

He suffered ill health for much of his life, and died at his home in Dorset.

"He could bring an audience to a deep silence which is a very rare gift," Rutter told In Tune. "He believed that music was for everybody and was a prayer."

Sir John made his name with the avant-garde oratorio The Whale, which was released by The Beatles on their Apple label in 1968.

He went on to become one of the few contemporary composers to find wide acclaim beyond the classical world.

Sir John's other well-known works included his setting of William Blake's poem The Lamb and A New Beginning, which was chosen to see in the new century at the end of 1999 in the Millennium Dome in London.

He was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize twice - in 1992 and 1997 - and was knighted in 2000.

Sir John also won a Grammy in 2002 for best classical contemporary composition for Lamentations and Praises, recorded with San Francisco male choral ensemble Chanticleer.

Grammy president Neil Portnow said the musician "strived to create compositions that were noble, magnificent and inspirational".

Image caption,
Sir John made his name in the late 1960s on The Beatles' Apple label

Having started his musical career as a teenage organist at a Presbyterian church in London, he converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and once said that "my way towards God has been to write music".

James Rushton, managing director of Sir John's publisher Chester Music, described him as "one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years".

"His large body of work... is one of the most significant contributions to classical music in our times," he said.

"For all of those fortunate enough to have known him, John was a man of strong beliefs, huge personal warmth, loyalty and humour. He will be much missed."

Sir John was also known for his imposing 6ft 6in (198 cm) frame and his flowing hair. As well as music, one of his great passions was luxury cars.

He had suffered a stroke in 1979, and in 1990 was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary condition that can cause heart defects.

In 2007 he suffered a heart attack that caused him to spend six months in intensive care. He defied doctors who did not expect him to return to work, and in his last months described composing as a welcome distraction from constant pain.

Sir John was heard on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week on Monday in an interview recorded on 31 October.

He recounted how his heart attack had left him unable to "sense the idea of God any more, [and] I couldn't sense any music".

He added: "It was only after being nursed by my wife back into some state of health that the music and a different kind of faith started to come back."

Sir John premiered three works at the Manchester International Festival this summer, The premiere of his latest work, Three Shakespeare Sonnets, is scheduled to take place at Southwark Cathedral on Friday.

Others paying tribute included cellist and collaborator Steven Isserlis, who remembered the composer as "full of humour, very funny".

"He's unique," Isserlis told Radio 3. "Classical music has fractured into all these completely different languages and voices and he had his own voice. He wasn't writing to be popular - he was writing the music he had to write."

Gill Graham, his publisher of 11 years, said he was a "true inspiration" to her. "He was a gentle, funny, kind, strong-willed and beautiful man. I will miss him terribly," she added.

Composer and conductor Sir Peter Maxwell Davies said Sir John's contribution to spiritual music was "immense", adding his death "is a great loss to the world of spiritual music".

Soprano Patricia Rozario said: "He really connected with our humanity, and people from all walks of life and different areas.

"Once he told me there were a whole group of youngsters who listened to his music while at a rave party, and he was quite touched by that, that even young people connected with his music."

Radio 3 controller Roger Wright described Sir John as "of one of our most powerful and individual voices".

A Clarence House spokesman said: "The Prince of Wales was saddened to hear of the death of John Tavener." He was widely reported to be Prince Charles's favourite composer.

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