Correction: A previous version of the article misstated the year of Princess Diana’s funeral, at which the composer’s “Song for Athene” was performed. It was in 1997, not 2007. This version has been updated.
Sir John Tavener, the choral composer, almost died a few years ago. Having suffered from health complications for years — he has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting connective tissue, and has had several surgeries and a stroke — he topped it off with a heart attack in 2007.
“They didn’t expect me to continue existing,” he says. “I was in a sort of coma. My wife insisted on playing Mozart to me, because she felt I might react to it.” It worked. “I started conducting to it.”
Even though music effectively brought him back from the brink, composing was not a high priority during his recovery. But eventually, when he and his wife were reading the 17th-century metaphysical English poet George Herbert, the urge to write returned. “It was the last poem, called ‘Life,’ that sort of woke me up,” says Tavener, 69, speaking by phone from London earlier this month. “It was just sort of a revelation. The music seemed to come to me from nowhere.”
Tavener is a mystical sort of figure with hair flowing to his shoulders and a strong spiritual bent, and his music is sweet and strong and gained even wider renown when a piece of it, “Song for Athene,” was performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. “Some people have criticized Tavener for being too easy, not challenging enough, playing on the emotions of the audience,” says the choral conductor Robert Shafer. “I don’t feel that, and you won’t hear that in the new music. There’s nothing all that obvious. It’s simple, but it’s subtle.”
Shafer will lead the world premiere of the completed piece, “Three Hymns of George Herbert,” along with another new Tavener work, “Tolstoy’s Creed,” at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon as part of a concert honoring Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. the composer, recovering from yet another medical procedure, will be in attendance.
Shafer, 67, understands about rebirths. In 2007, after he had led the Washington Chorus for 35 years (and won a Grammy with it in 2000), he was unexpectedly let go. The reasoning appeared to be that it was time for new blood. Not everyone agreed; when Shafer left, a number of singers went with him. Together, they founded the City Choir of Washington — yet another large chorus in a town that already had plenty of them.
To keep solvent, the group has had to be flexible. Where Shafer once conducted only choral masterworks, he has now branched out into work for hire — such as the “Lord of the Rings” film score performed at Wolf Trap.
“Actually it was very challenging music, very interesting,” he said with amused surprise from his Virginia home last week. “And now I know how to train a choir to sing in Elvish.” Taking on more commercial projects has enabled the chorus to present standard repertory and make it to its sixth season. And this young group, led by a conductor who once thought his conducting career might be over, is going to get to sing the first-ever performance of the work that starts the rest of Sir John Tavener’s life.
And this commission, with a price tag in the high five figures, was funded — drumroll, please — by a public-policy think tank. “I think it’s a first,” says Tavener.
We hear a lot of rhetoric these days about the importance of the arts in the 21st-century workplace. The Legatum Institute is attempting to back that up by supplementing its work on economic and political transitions around the world with a series of cultural offerings.
“We’re in a period where everyone is hyperspecialized; we’re all getting stuck in our silos,” says Jeffrey Gedmin, the institute’s chief executive (formerly head of the Aspen Institute Berlin and Radio Free Europe), speaking from his London office. “Einstein said imagination is more important than information. How do we spark imagination? Sometimes by lifting ourselves out of our silos and thinking how other people tackle problems: a poet, an entrepreneur, a writer of fiction.” (Full disclosure: Anne Applebaum, who writes for The Washington Post, holds the title of the Institute’s director of global transitions.)
The relationship between art and public policy is, of course, somewhat oblique: “You don’t go to a Tavener concert, and come away thinking about tax policy,” Gedmin quips. The Diamond Jubilee theme, and the implied celebration of U.S.-British relations, is the only overt political connection in a work that Tavener describes as “quite a feminine piece.”
“One of the qualities I miss most in contemporary art is the childlike and the feminine,” Tavener says. “I suppose it’s been the area to which I feel I’ve contributed, if I’ve contributed anything.”
But the existence of the commission — and, indeed, of Gedmin’s philosophy about the arts — is a direct result of arts education. In the 1970s, Gedmin, who is American, was Shafer’s student at a Fairfax County high school in Vienna, Va. Shafer instilled such a love of music that Gedmin pursued an undergraduate music degree before shifting to graduate work in German studies and moving into the realm of public policy.
A few years ago, when he was in Washington, Gedmin saw that Shafer was conducting Bach’s Mass in B Minor. He went to hear it, reconnected with his old teacher after the performance and began brainstorming ideas about involving the arts in his current work. Shafer has since appeared in the institute’s Salon Series, evenings devoted to poetry, theater, painting and music. Soon enough, Shaferwas looking for a composer who might be available to write something on a couple of years’ notice.
The result is tantamount to a statement of faith coming from three different angles: Shafer’s in the existence of his chorus, Gedmin’s in the ability of art to broaden the horizons of policymakers, and Tavener’s in God. “Tolstoy’s Creed” wasn’t even part of the original commission. Reading Tolstoy after his illness, Tavener says, “I found the Christianity he believed in was closer to the Christianity I believed in after being ill.” He was so inspired that he set some of the text to music and sent it to Shafer as well. “It wasn’t an important piece of music for me,” he says. “It was just something I needed to put down. It was a proclamation.”
Which certainly offers a whole new perspective on a think tank’s work. And that, after all, is part of the point.
“If music is not another reality, another way of seeing things that is separate from the everyday way,” Tavener says, “then it’s not worth writing.”
The City Choir of Washington concert will be presented Sunday at 4 p.m. at Washington National Cathedral. Tickets, $25-$80, are available through the cathedral’s box office at tickets.cathedral.org.
This story originally gave a wrong date for Princess Diana’s death. This has been corrected.