[Pt. I Proj.4] ~ Exercise- Exploring contemporary classical composition- Sir John Tavener

Exercise – Exploring contemporary classical composition

Choose a contemporary classical composer that you’d like to learn more about. Use the internet or library to find out more about the composer, his or her style of composition and important works. Listen to extracts from several pieces.

Make notes on the composer’s life, how the work is innovative and how it has developed, who or what have been important influences, and your personal responses to the pieces you listen to. Aim to write about 500 words and keep your notes as you’ll need them for Assignment One.

ikon-text1Sir John Tavener (1944 – 2013)

John Tavener was fiercely encouraged and protected by his mother and his family’s financial support enabled him to thrive, already composing by the age of three.Tavener studied piano, organ and composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London under composers David Lumsdaine and Sir Lennox Berkeley.  He was greatly influenced by Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Canticum Sacrum’. Blake’s and St John of the Cross’s poetry and Donne’s sonnets where also instrumental.

As well as traditional material he was exposed to modern works by Messiaen, Ligeti, Boulez. Influences noticeable in compositions such as The Whale and Celtic Requiem. Innovative for the time, using tape and unusual instrumentation.

‘The Whale’ made quite a stir when debuted in 1968. Released on The Beatles’ owApple Records it gained Tavener popularity and a following outside of classical circles. Set to the social backdrop of the psychedelic sixties it was very much a product of it’s age. General disillusionment had lead people to look East for spiritual meaning. This was echoed by Tavener’s search for metaphysical answers. Years later Tavener would again mirror the nations sentiments when‘Song for Athene’ was used for Princess Diana’s funeral.

At 36 fate dealt Tavener some serious blows. Within a short space of time his marriage to Victoria Maragopoulou came to an end and he also suffered a stroke. These traumas culminated in him seeking solace in, and converting to Christian Orthodoxy. It was later discovered that he had Marfan Syndrome and he continued to have health scares throughout his life.

He joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and soon sought out the Orthodox abbess Mother Thekla, who became both his spiritual teacher and librettist. When listening to my favourite pieces from this period; ’The Protecting Veil’, ‘Akathist’ and ‘Resurrection’ I clearly hear the tradition of the Slavonic mass with it’s sacred tones (fundamental drones), and micro tonal melodies based on the modes of the Octoechos. I was born into the Greek Orthodox Church. Although not a practicing Orthodox, the music still tugs at my heart strings. So unfamiliar to many Western ears, but so uniquely capable of expressing certain emotions and states of mind. Tavener and Mother Thekla expanded upon and further rejuvenated this style into a distinct musical language where text, music and instrumentations take on symbolic meaning.Tavener might have been one of the main exponents of Holy Minimalism, but I feel that his style evolved far beyond this definition.

After his break with Mother Thekla his work entered a new and final phase. His world view now pantheistic, his music taking elements from other traditions. The Rig Vedas, Rumi and  Whirling Dervishes had already been introduced to him by his poet muse Kathleen Raine. He also explored the Eros principles to which he’d first awakened a number of years earlier. (Dudgeon, 2013:1786) Now the time was ripe for it to be incorporated. He started using elements of Sufi music, American Indians chants and Samavedic rhythms.

by Sunny Lazic



Classic FM. (2013) John Tavener (1944-2013) Biography At:

http://www.classicfm.com/composers/tavener/ (Accessed on 21 Jan 2017)

Cummings, R (2013) John Tavener Biography At:

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-tavener-mn0000379347/biography (Accessed on 21 Jan 2017)

Dudgeon, P. (2013) Lifting the Veil: The Biography of Sir John Tavener [Kindle edition]

From: Amazon.co.uk (Accessed on  14 Jan 2017).

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) Sir John Tavener British Composer  At:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Tavener (Accessed on 21 Jan 2017)

John Tavener (with Peter Levy) (2013) [user-generated content online] Creat. dimbarsak 07Jan 2013 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lozteqwh6EU (Accessed on 21 Jan 2017)

Tavener, J (2013) Compositions At:

http://johntavener.com/composition/ (Accessed on 21 Jan 2017)

Tavener, J. (1999) The Music of Silence A composer’s Testament  London: Faber and Faber Limited.img_2346