A guide to the music of Sir John Tavener

We look at the unique genius of the great British composer who died this month


Sir John TavenerSir John Tavener, who has died at the age of 69, was one of the best known and best loved composers of the 20th century.

In the current issue of BBC Music Magazine, we print an interview that Michael White carried out with the composer shortly before he died.

Here, we provide a guide to his unique genius and a guide to some of his most important pieces.

Tavener is often at his most telling in simple, unaccompanied choral works such as his Christmas hymn The Lamb which builds a flowing chant around four notes, little more than a repeating nursery rhyme and yet invested with such powerful tenderness they capture the Christian notion of a small child ruling the universe through love. Accessible but not dismissible, this is the quintessence of so-called Holy Minimalism.

Tavener’s concert and church scores can be dramatic, making use of sudden dynamic contrasts, or abrupt confrontations of sound and silence. The unexpected arrival of the organ in the anthem ‘God is with us’ will always liven up a sleepy evensong.

In Tavener’s larger work he is able to make ten minutes of material fill an hour through cyclic repetitions – typically alternating a contemplative or chant-like figure with a spicy Eastern dance motif. But as they return on what seems like a loop they demand surrender to his ideal of passivity in the presence of an ikon, and a preparedness to be taken out of time. Sitting through The Veil of the Temple, it is counterproductive to check your watch.

Much of Tavener’s output tends toward the massive. Contemplating God across long time-spans with large forces in huge spaces, it enters the realm of events rather than concerts. The spatial organisation of sound has always been
of interest to him.

Recommended recordings

Ikon of Light
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Coro 16015
A good introduction to Tavener’s finest choral writing, including The Lamb and the early seven-movement sequence that gives the disc its name.

The Protecting Veil
Steven Isserlis (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Erato 3-63293
A classic release of the hypnotically spaced-out score that still wins converts after 18 years. Steven Isserlis performs this work with the LSO and Rozhdestvensky on the cover CD of the current issue of BBC Music Magazine.

Ex Maria Virgine
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown
Naxos 8.572168
A recent carol sequence that does surprising things to familiar texts.

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko
EMI 235 1342
In his later, stylistically inclusive mode, the Requiem contains grandiloquence and a state of surrender.

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