Tuesday, July 05, 2011

John Tavener

Sir John Tavener (born 28 January 1944) is a British composer, knighted in 2000 for his services to music.


Tavener was born on 28 January 1944 in Wembley, London, England, and is a direct descendant of the 16th century composer John Taverner. He was educated at Highgate School (where a fellow pupil was John Rutter) and at the Royal Academy of Music, where his tutors included Sir Lennox Berkeley. He first came to prominence in 1968 with his dramatic cantata The Whale, based on the Old Testament story of Jonah. It was premièred at the London Sinfonietta's début concert and later recorded by Apple Records. The following year he began teaching at Trinity College of Music, London. Other works released by Apple included his Celtic Requiem. In 1977, he joined the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox theology and Orthodox liturgical traditions became a major influence on his work. He was particularly drawn to its mysticism, studying and setting to music the writings of Church Fathers such as St John Chrysostom.

One of Tavener's most popular and frequently performed works is his short unaccompanied four-part choral setting of William Blake's The Lamb, written for his nephew, Simon, on his third birthday one afternoon in 1982. This simple, homophonic piece is usually performed as a Christmas carol. More important, however, were his explorations of Russian and Greek culture, as shown in "Akhmatova Requiem" and "Sixteen Haiku of Seferis". Later prominent works include The Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987, written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church); The Protecting Veil (first performed by cellist Steven Isserlis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the 1989 Proms); and Song for Athene (1993, memorably performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997). Following Diana's death he also composed and dedicated to her memory the piece Eternity's Sunrise, based on poetry by William Blake.

It has been reported, particularly in the British press, that Tavener left Orthodox Christianity to explore a number of other different religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam, and became a follower of the mystic philosopher Frithjof Schuon. While he has in recent years incorporated elements of non-Western music into his compositions, Tavener remains an Orthodox Christian though his brother, Roger, tended towards Sufi. In 2003 he composed the exceptionally large work The Veil of the Temple, based on texts from a number of religions. It is set for four choirs, several orchestras and soloists and lasts at least seven hours. The 2004 premier of his piece 'Prayer of the Heart' written for and performed by Björk, was featured on CD and incorporated as the soundtrack to Jake Lever's powerful installation 'Centre + Circumference' (2008, Wallspace, All Hallows on the Wall, City of London).

While Tavener's early music was influenced by Igor Stravinsky, often invoking the sound world of the Requiem Canticles and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, his recent music is more sparse, uses wide registral space and is usually diatonically tonal. Some commentators see a similarity with the works of Arvo Pärt, from their common religious tradition to the technical details of phrase lengths, diatonicism and colouristic percussion effects, though the similarities between their outputs are quite superficial. Olivier Messiaen has also been suggested as a strong influence on his earlier work.

Tavener has Marfan syndrome. His wife, Lady Maryanna Tavener, broadcast a charity appeal on BBC Radio 4 in October 2008 on behalf of the Marfan Trust.

Career highlights

* 1969 - The Whale premièred by the London Sinfonietta and subsequently recorded on The Beatles' Apple label.
* 1971 - Celtic Requiem recorded by Apple.
* 1973 - Thérèse, the story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, commissioned by the Royal Opera, London.
* 1989 - première of The Protecting Veilat the Proms in London.
* 2000 - received a knighthood in Millennium Honours List.
* 2003 - première of the all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple by the Holst Singers and the Choir of the Temple Church at the Temple Church, London.
* 2005 - première of Laila (Amu), Tavener’s first dance collaboration, with Random Dance company and Wayne McGregor's choreography.
* 2006 - contributed Fragments of a Prayer to the Alfonso Cuarón film Children of Men.
* 2007 - première of The Beautiful Names by the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra at Westminster Cathedral. The work, sung in Arabic, is a setting of the 99 names of Allah found in the Qur'an. Awarded honorary degree by the University of Winchester.
* 2008 - World premier of "the anthem" sung in St Paul's Cathedral in the presence of HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
* March 2009 - The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia presents the world premiere of Tu ne sais pas, a work for mezzo-soprano, timpani, and strings. Katherine Pracht will sing the texts, which are drawn from poems by French poet Jean Biès, (one of the work's dedicatees), and from Islamic and Hindu sources.

Key works

* The Whale (1966; soloists, speaker, SATB choir, children's choir, orchestra)
* The Protecting Veil (1988; cello, strings)
* Ikon of the Nativity (1991; SATB choir, a cappella)
* Song for Athene (1993; SATB choir)
* The Veil of the Temple (2002; soprano, SATB choir, boys' choir, ensemble)
* Schuon Lieder (2003; soprano, ensemble)
* Laila (Amu) (2004; soprano, tenor, orchestra)
* Lament for Jerusalem (2006; soprano, countertenor, SATB choir, orchestra)


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