Sir John Tavener, a leading British composer, died on 13 November at the age of 69. Knighted in 2000, Sir John made his name with the avant-garde oratorio The Whale, which was released by The Beatles on their Apple label in 1968. In 1997, his “Song for Athene” was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, and his music has been performed by choirs and ensembles across the world. Members of The King’s Singers and Nigel Short had worked with the Tavener directly, and Eric Whitacre has been influenced by his works.
David Hurley of The King’s Singers writes:
It was with great sadness that I heard of the death earlier today of the British composer Sir John Tavener. We have some of his pieces in our repertoire including The Lamb, written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge in 1984 and first performed at that year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. We also regularly sing his beautiful setting of The Lord’s Prayer, as part of our Pater Noster programme. In 1973 Tavener composed for The King’s Singers and the Nash Ensemble his Requiem for Father Malachy, a new, extended version of a work entitled Little Requiem for Father Malachy. This earlier work was premièred in 1972 in Winchester Cathedral, and I have vivid memories of that performance as a 9 year-old chorister, and also of performances in the following years of one of his other large-scale works Ultimos Ritos. I later had the wonderful opportunity to be one of seven counter-tenor soloists (alongside my then KS colleague, Nigel Short) in 1994 at the world première of The Apocalypse. This BBC Proms performance was conducted by another KS friend and colleague, the late-lamented Richard Hickox. Chris Gabbitas also performed in the première at the Temple Church of his seven hour all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple, the work which Tavener himself considered to be his most significant composition.
Nigel Short, artistic director of Tenebrae writes:
I was very sad to hear the news of Sir John Tavener’s passing yesterday. Sir John was an extremely pleasant and gentle man, but with an almost unnerving sense of spiritual conviction. He reflected this in his music, much of it specifically based on Russian Orthodoxy, but latterly it became more universal, including elements of Hinduism and Islam. Performing his work is always challenging, stimulating and incredibly rewarding because there’s no other choral music quite like it in our repertoire: it strips away the sentimentality of twentieth century harmonic language often used by the most popular choral composers of today and leaves bare for the performer and listener the deeply intense spirituality of the texts he was setting. His largest work, The Veil of the Temple, will remain one of the ‘giants’ in the choral repertoire for many, many years to come.
Composer Eric Whitacre writes:
A tremendous loss for the musical world. His music was filled with innocence and mystery, a rare and wonderful thing in our modern, cynical times. My own writing was deeply influenced by the spacious, deeply authentic sound worlds that he created; I will forever be in his debt.