Sir John Tavener was one of the best known and best loved composers of the 20th century.
Here, we provide a guide to his unique genius.
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.