Sir John Tavener, a British composer noted for his spiritual works, dies at 69

Sir John Tavener, a British composer whose career was boosted with the help of the Beatles and who often is remembered for the elegiac song performed as Princess Diana’s coffin was carried out of Westminster Abbey, died Nov. 12 at his home in Child Okeford, England. He was 69.

Sir John’s publisher, Chester Music, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.

(SERKAN SENTURK/ASSOCIATED PRESS) - English composer John Tavener receives a Lifetime Achievement Award in the 35th International Istanbul Music Festival in 2007. “I think there are an awful lot of artists around who are very good at leading us into hell,” Sir John said. “I would rather someone would show me the way to paradise.”

**CORRECTS LAST NAME TO ROPER ** ** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 4 **Pastor Fred Phelps, right, holds his great-granddaughter, Zion Phelps-Roper, as he sings happy birthday to family members during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. Phelps and his tight-knit congregation travel the country preaching damnation to a nation of sinners. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Notable deaths of 2014

A look at those who have died this year.

GoingOut Guide
Looking for things to do?
Select one or more criteria to search
Get ideas

Sir John composed the beautiful “Song for Athene” — reworked as “Songs of Angels” — that caught the public’s mood at Diana’s funeral. His wistful, elegant setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb” (1982) became a staple of Christmas carol services.

“I think there are an awful lot of artists around who are very good at leading us into hell,” Sir John once said. “I would rather someone would show me the way to paradise.”

Sir John’s music was distinguished by quiet passages that seemed to shimmer like dawn light and by its other-worldly intensity and moments of ecstasy. He spoke of some compositions arriving instantaneously in his mind.

“If one is going to create this eternal, celestial music, one has got to listen, to be silent, to hear the angel of inspiration dictate,” he said in his 60th year.

John Kenneth Tavener was born Jan. 28, 1944, into a music-loving family in north London. At an early age, he began to improvise and compose at the piano. As a teenage organist in a Presbyterian church, he conducted adventurous modern works including Michael Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time,” Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”

Abandoning an ambition to be a concert pianist, he studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

In the late 1960s, his cantata “The Whale” brought him fame with the help of the Beatles, who released it on their Apple records label.

Sir John said he caught the attention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party by playing a tape of his opera, “Notre Dames des Fleurs,” inspired by Jean Ge­net’s novel about a prisoner’s sexual fantasies.

The opera — which was later lost — featured obscene lyrics, a choir and what Sir John called his “thunderous” performance on the organ.

Lennon offered a recording deal the next day, Sir John said, but it needed another Beatle to get “The Whale” to market.

“It took Ringo, who is a lot more pragmatic than John,” Sir John said in a BBC interview. “Ringo actually brought out ‘The Whale’ and ‘Celtic Requiem.’ ”

“ ‘The Whale,’ ” he said, “was a piece written by an angry young man . . . because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms.”

Sir John’s later, better-known works flowed from his conversion to Orthodox Christianity and his collaboration with Mother ­Thekla, a Russian emigre and Orthodox nun to whom he turned for support after his mother died in 1985.

Thekla’s short “The Life of St. Mary of Egypt” inspired his 1992 opera, “Mary of Egypt,” and she provided many of the librettos for other works.

The fruits of their collaboration included “The Protecting Veil” in 1987, “Song for Athene” (1993), “The Apocalypse” (1993), “Fall and Resurrection” (1999) and “We Shall See Him as He Is” (1993).

Sir John dedicated his book “The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament” (2000) to Mother Thekla. She “helped me put my music and my life together,” he said.

Their relationship was severed in the early years of the 21st century as Sir John’s interests spread beyond Orthodoxy to embrace the insights of other traditions. She died in 2011.

His marriage in 1974 to Victoria Maragopoulou, a dancer, effectively ended after eight months, though they formally divorced only a decade later on grounds of non-consummation — which Sir John later said was not true.

Sir John suffered many health problems.

“Almost every piece I write is, in a sense, kind of viewing death in different lights,” he once said.

He had the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome, suffered a stroke at 30 and in 1991 had a difficult surgery for a leaking aortic valve.

He was supported in his recovery by Maryanna Schaefer, who jolted him out of his self-absorption and in 1991 became his wife.

“After that, I thought, what is this whole thing about my precious art? I can’t do this, I can’t have children, I can’t [do] that and I can’t do the other thing because of my precious art,” Sir John said in an interview for “John Tavener: A Portrait,” a Naxos recording.

“Suddenly I thought, right, away with all this, this is total nonsense. This is living in the most ridiculously self-centered, arrogant way. Of course I can have children.”

The couple had two daughters, Theodora and Sofia, and a son, Orlando, who survive him.

Sir John ranged widely in geography and spirituality in his pursuit of what he described as innocence.

“I hear it in Sufi music with the nay flute. I see it in Coptic icons, in most traditional art, particularly art of the American Indian. I find the texts extraordinarily beautiful and very childlike and very simple,” he said in an interview with Beliefnet.

“The Veil of the Temple” (2002), a seven-hour work to be performed overnight, was an attempt “to remove the veils that hide the same basic truth of all authentic religions.”

“It begins for instance in the words of the Sufis, and ends in the Hindu world, with the Upanishad Hymn,” he wrote in a program note. “The ‘Logos’, that mysterious substance inside the Godhead, reveals itself in many forms, whether it be Christ, Krishna, or ‘the word made book’ in the form of the Quran.”

Many of his solo parts were written for the Indian-born soprano Patricia Rozario. He was drawn, he said, to “the ecstatic quality of her voice.”

He found something like that in the “savage, untamed quality” in the voice of Björk, the Icelandic pop star for whom he wrote “Prayer of the Heart” (2004).

She also introduced him to an Apache medicine man, an encounter that Sir John said provoked a vision that night that “all traditions lead to the center, which is God.”

Sir John, whose work was championed by Prince Charles, received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for services to music.

In April, he traveled to Washington National Cathedral to see the City Choir of Washington perform the world premieres of his latest works, “Tolstoy’s Creed” and “Three Poems of George Herbert,” which he described as a “rebirth” after a heart attack nearly killed him in 2007. They proved to be among the last pieces he wrote.

— Associated Press

Washington Post staff writer Anne Midgette contributed to this report.

More music content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying