This is the time of the year when media presenters and programmes, journalists, authors and historians, and perhaps you and me, look back over the year that has gone in order to be reminded of those who are no longer with us. There have been several personal friends and former colleagues, in Australia as in the UK, who did not survive the year, but who will always have a place in the memory and my gratitude at having shared some of their lives, something of themselves, with me.
Of course, there have been others who have died who found fame, if not always fortune, in sporting, academic, literary, cultural, etc., pursuits and whose lives intersected with mine only in terms of my personal interests. One of these persons was the popular British musician and composer, Sir John Tavener. He just happened to be born in the same year as myself – a rare distinction!
Probably the best known composition of John Tavener is The Protecting Veil, a work that has been described as having “an instant magnetism, at once gentle and compelling”. The title refers to the Orthodox Church’s celebration of a 10th century vision when in Constantinople the Virgin Mary appeared and cast her protecting veil over the Christians who were being attacked by the Saracen armies. I find the music to have moments of genuine gorgeousness and real romanticism, even considering its highly dubious historicity and theological tendentiousness.
Much of Tavener’s musical creativity and output was inspired by religious faith and belief. However, it has been said that “many of his works held an appeal for audiences that did not necessarily identify with contemporary music or the theological values from which he started”. Whilst his family background was Christian Presbyterianism, Tavener’s music contained, amongst other religious influences, elements of Islam, Sufism and Buddhism, and he seems to have had a fascination for Roman Catholicism. He also converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. His spirituality was most eclectic.
The year 2000 was one of the most memorable in John Tavener’s life. In that year he was awarded a knighthood, a festival of his music at the Southbank Centre, London, and the first performance of the work entitled Fall and Resurrection. In this music Tavener explored the “characteristic themes of the end of the world and paradise”, as he pushed the boundaries of his musical vision further to the east and eastern religions. According to the beliefs of his religious faith, in death he will have discovered something of the latter exploration, if not the former.
The direction of John Tavener’s music attracted many fellow travellers and dedicatees, notably Charles Windsor. The Fall and Resurrection was, in fact, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, with whom Tavener formed a lasting friendship. Prince Charles apparently became a generous supporter of Tavener’s music, especially his musical exploration of the “universalist” approach to religion – a quest the two men shared, though for different reasons.
It is no mere coincidence that Charles Windsor, the heir to the British throne, has expressed a desire to be the “champion of all faiths”, as well as the head of the Church of England. His interest in Tavener’s music, especially, reflects such an aspiration. However, it is open to conjecture if Charles Windsor would, or could, follow John Tavener into the musical mysteries of such composers as Boulez, Cage, Ligeti and Messiaen – all of whom, it is said by the experts, to have influenced Tavener’s musical progress and left their footprints in his output. The Prince of Wales may have modernist tendencies in some things, but is trenchantly traditionalist in many others!
Perhaps the final word about this iconic British musical figure comes from his personal musings on his Requiem, a musical offering commissioned to celebrate Liverpool as the European City of Culture in 2008 and written when Tavener had been told that he was under a sentence of death through persistent ill-health. “The essence of the Requiem,” Tavener explained, “is contained in the words ‘Our glory lies where we cease to exist'”. In an obituary, the music critic Michael J. Stewart said that, for Tavener, life “is a story about a ‘journey’ and becoming ‘one with God'”. This quest is reflected in all of Tavener’s music familiar to this writer, but especially in the Requiem – an engaging, haunting and mystical musical score.
The veil has fallen on the life of John Tavener, as it has for many others – both known and unknown to me. Many journeys have ended. The essence of what each of these persons were has now become ‘one with God’, returned to the universal elements, the raw material and primeval force of nature. Each one has left their imprint on the everlasting memory; some will remain indelibly in my memory.