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date: 18 October 2019

Tavener, Sir John Kennethfree

  • Edward Venn

Sir John Kenneth Tavener (1944–2013)

by Michael Taylor, 2001

Tavener, Sir John Kenneth (1944–2013), composer, was born on 28 January 1944 at 15 Greenhill, Wembley Park, London, the son of (Charles) Kenneth Tavener (1913–1996), quantity surveyor and owner of a building firm, and his wife, Muriel Eveline, née Brown (1915–1985). He had one younger brother, Roger (1947–2008).

Education and early career

Tavener's father, a Presbyterian, was organist at a local Congregational church. This may have stimulated Tavener's early experiments at the piano, where he demonstrated a flair for improvisation; he also had perfect pitch. Piano lessons began when he was five, and while at Arnold House preparatory school he attracted attention from his peers for his imitations at the keyboard of classical composers.

The emigration of Tavener's piano tutor led to lessons with Guy Jonson, professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Jonson was one of a number of influential figures brought into the Tavener circle through the family business, which specialized in renovating homes. Another was Lady Rhoda Birley, who in 1956 granted Tavener access to the grounds and buildings of Charleston Manor, as well as to a grand piano. That summer, Birley took him to see the Glyndebourne production of The Magic Flute, an experience only matched by the profound impact of hearing Stravinsky's Canticum sacrum later in the year. For Tavener, the latter work proved pivotal in his decision to become a composer, and retrospectively he came to see it as his introduction to the spirit of Byzantine music.

Tavener won a scholarship to Highgate School in 1957. There, he continued to perform (and in 1961 was soloist in Shostakovich's second piano concerto with the National Youth Orchestra), but his interests were primarily compositional. As he lacked fluency in notation, the neat copy of his first acknowledged work, a Duo concertant for trombone and piano (1961), was written out by his school friend John Rutter (who also found later fame as a composer). This did not prevent Tavener from joining the RAM in January 1962 (Jonson was a familiar face on the interview panel), but he was required to retake his first-year exams after failing the theory paper. At the RAM he studied composition with Lennox Berkeley; his piano concerto (1962–3), dedicated to the pianist Solomon (Solomon Cutner, with whom Tavener had struck up a friendship) reflected something of Berkeley's urbane manner but above all the enduring influence of late Stravinsky.

It was, however, Berkeley's Catholicism rather than his teaching that had more of an impact on his pupil. Religious feeling certainly inspired Tavener's 1962 Genesis for tenor, chorus, narrator, and large ensemble. After its première, he suffered chest pains that were probably related to his as yet undiagnosed Marfan's syndrome (a heart condition that was also responsible for his striking height and gauntness). Alongside his studies, he was organist and choirmaster of St John's Presbyterian Church, Kensington, a role that he held from 1961 until 1975. The choir aided him with his compositional 'experiments' (Haydon, 69), but the position 'made no spiritual impact' upon him (The Independent, 13 Nov 2013).

Tavener benefited more from informal lessons with the Australian composer David Lumsdaine, a mature RAM student. Lumsdaine introduced him to the modernist music emanating from mainland Europe over the previous two decades. Although some of the techniques associated with this repertoire found a place in Tavener's own music, he remained antithetical to the 'angst-ridden sound of decay' and the 'vile post-Freudian world' found in Schoenberg's music (The Music of Silence, 14), and to notions of musical progress in general. Lumsdaine also raised Tavener's awareness of the possibility that music could possess a visionary quality (and Tavener recognized this quality in the music of Webern, Messiaen, and Stockhausen). Lumsdaine's influence, along with that of Stravinsky, can be heard in The Cappemakers (1964; rev. 1965), a setting of texts from the Chester mystery plays. Tavener was at this point receiving instruction from Father Malachy Lynch, whose exhortations to 'keep the medieval spirit of Art alive' (Haydon, 46) resonated with his own work. The Cappemakers was premièred at a festival organized by Lady Birley, bringing Tavener to the attention of the national press. Shortly afterwards, the London Bach Society performed his Three Holy Sonnets (1962): his first professional performance, subsequently broadcast. He later frequently criticized his chamber concerto (1965), finding its technical preoccupations a retreat into abstraction, and lacking in metaphysical content. More successful was the cantata Cain and Abel (1965), which won the Prince Rainier of Monaco international award for composition.

Tavener had received financial support from the RAM since 1963; in November 1966 he used his entire year's subvention to purchase the first of many vintage cars. He continued to cultivate such extravagances, wearing his hair long, drinking heavily, and throughout his life having numerous lovers, yet there was no contradiction with his inner spirituality. Of his second car—a Bentley bought in 1970—he said, 'there's something about the largesse of this car which allows my mind to expand' (Haydon, 100).

The sacred and the profane

None of Tavener's early work exemplified more this productive blend of the sacred and the profane than The Whale (1965–6), dedicated to Lady Birley. The work is ostensibly another biblical setting, this time of Jonah and the whale, rendered surreal by means of ideas from the avant garde, including improvised passages, found materials (the work begins with a dry recitation of an encyclopaedia entry on the whale), and theatricality. The work was premièred in 1968 in the inaugural concert of the recently founded London Sinfonietta; Nicholas Snowman, a friend of Tavener's from Highgate, was the orchestra's general manager. It was later brought to the attention of the Beatles via Tavener's brother, Roger (who had met Ringo Starr through the Tavener family business), leading to Apple Records releasing two albums of Tavener's music in the early 1970s.

Tavener was increasingly prominent in the media: he was the first subject of BBC television's Music Now programme, and in 1969 was given features in both the Daily Mirror and Vogue magazine. He had in 1968 secured a position as professor of composition at Trinity College of Music, teaching for one day a week (a post he had little interest in), and had achieved numerous critical successes with works such as In Alium (a 1968 Proms commission that made use of tape recordings and spatial effects) and Celtic Requiem (1969), a blend of ritualized children's games about death and settings of Catholic texts. In their use of non-developmental juxtapositions of musical blocks (recalling Stravinsky and Messiaen) and passages of long sustained harmonies, these works looked forward to Tavener's later music. He still drank copiously (a later drinking partner was the actor Mia Farrow, whom Tavener met after composing incidental music for a production of J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose in 1972), yet still lived at home with his parents.

In response to an affair with Jean Andersson, the first of a series of women he regarded as muses, Tavener was becoming increasingly drawn towards the writings of St John of the Cross. The music of the 1970s can be viewed as a response to both Andersson and St John. Ultimos Ritos (1972) was an ambitious work for massed voices, orchestra, and tape, in which every element of the musical design—from the layout of the ensemble through to the emergence of a quotation from Bach's B minor mass—had symbolic function. Though the première was marred by technical problems, the work won a prize for religious composition from the Italian Society for Contemporary Music. But by the time he had completed Thérèse, an opera taking St Thérèse of Lisieux as its subject (1973–6; premièred 1979), he had already begun to distance himself from 'the spiritual “angst” of Roman Catholicism' as well as those expressionistic qualities of the music that he associated with modernism (The Music of Silence, 31).

Orthodoxy and Eros

It was through the playwright Gerard McLarnon, Thérèse's librettist, that Tavener met Father Anthony Bloom, the head of the Russian Orthodox church in England. Bloom presided over Tavener's wedding on 12 November 1974 to Victoria Maragopoulou, a 23-year-old ballet teacher (and daughter of Constantine Maragopoulos, medical practitioner), whom he had met the previous year. The marriage was short-lived: Tavener refused to move out of his parents' house, and continued to drink heavily. Victoria left him within eight months (the marriage was formally annulled in 1980), but the two nevertheless remained friends. It was Victoria who first brought Tavener to Greece, and although he initially hated it, the country became a spiritual and artistic home.

Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox church in 1977, and shortly after completed a setting of the Orthodox liturgy. Bloom's congregation responded negatively to Tavener's personal response to the text. This prompted him to immerse himself in the Byzantine music tradition and its spiritual symbolism, discovering within it a way out of what he perceived to be the subjective excesses of modernism. Initially, Tavener sought to blend his existing technical vocabulary (including twelve-note rows and symmetrical formal designs) with the use of Byzantine modes (ēchoi or 'tones'), and ison (pedal notes or 'eternity notes') and Russian chant. Drawing on all these tendencies, the darkly lyrical Akhmatova: Requiem for soprano and bass soloists with orchestra (1979–80) was an important milestone in his development. Over the next thirty years this approach was expanded to take into account other musics in which spiritual authenticity was measured not by personal expression but by sublimation to tradition, such as those emanating from Indian, Sufi, and Native American practices.

In June 1980 Tavener suffered a stroke. Though he made a good recovery, he continued to suffer from out-of-body experiences and auditory hallucinations that were frequently musical in nature. One such attack led to the composition of the hour-long Prayer for the World for sixteen solo voices (1981), which combined palindromic form, serial techniques, microtonal embellishments, and drones in an act of devotion. The première, given by the Tallis Scholars, was a critical failure. Nevertheless, Tavener went on to have a long and fruitful association with the choir, including writing for them the masterly Ikon of Light (1984) for double choir and string trio. Ikon of Light employed profitably the blend of rigour and tradition found in Prayer for the World, as in its use of a magic square (used by Webern, among others) to generate new material from Byzantine melodies. But it was with a smaller choral work, The Lamb (1982), that Tavener had his greatest success since The Whale. Small but perfectly realized, The Lamb's fusion of gentle dissonance and meditative atmosphere made it a staple of the choral repertoire.

Tavener's circle at this time included figures such as the artist Cecil Collins and writer Philip Sherrard, who introduced him to writings and thinkers that deepened his awareness of mystic traditions and helped him to articulate his own metaphysical ideas. He increasingly came to embrace Eros, 'the concept of the erotic' that goes beyond 'the biological sexual act … it is really part of everything' (The Music of Silence, 167).

The most significant influence at this time, however, was Mother Thekla, abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby, whom Tavener had first approached in order to request permission to set her translation of The Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete (1981). Though the two did not meet until 1986, Tavener had become increasingly reliant on her in the months surrounding the death of his mother in 1985. Mother Thekla's ability to present complex ideas straightforwardly and illuminate dense networks of symbolism helped provide Tavener with theological justifications for his musical decision-making. Their first major collaboration, with Mother Thekla as librettist, was Akathist of Thanksgiving (1986), for soloists, chorus, organ, percussion, and strings; the end of the decade witnessed the completion of their opera, the 'moving ikon' Mary of Egypt (1989; premièred 1992).

In 1990 Tavener was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve related to Marfan's syndrome; an operation in 1991 to repair this was delayed due to the need for a tumour in his jaw to be removed first. Both operations were ultimately successful, but Tavener was in a critical condition for some days. On 6 September 1991 he married Maryanna Elizabeth Malecka Schaefer, a 25-year-old science writer, and daughter of Glen Willard Schaefer, research scientist; Tavener finally moved out of his family home and into a new house in Sussex. They had two daughters, Theodora Alexandra (b. 1993) and Sofia Evelyn (b. 1995), and a son, Orlando (b. 2006).

The success of Akathist's first performance in Westminster Abbey in 1988 was soon eclipsed by the première at the 1989 Proms of The Protecting Veil (1987), which Tavener described as a 'lyrical ikon in sound' for cello solo and string orchestra. A subsequent CD release of the work, nominated for the 1992 Mercury music prize, brought further public acclaim. Tavener's stock was rising; following an honorary doctorate in New Delhi, 1990, he was in 1993 the first non-Greek to be awarded the Apollo award by the Friends of the Greek National Opera. In January 1994 the BBC ran Ikons, a four-day festival in honour of his fiftieth birthday; a second honorary doctorate was awarded by City University in 1995. But critics tended to be less enthusiastic: censured for his reliance on static harmonies, non-developmental structures, and frequent use of repetition, he was derogatorily grouped with composers such as Arvo Pärt as 'holy minimalists'. The distance between popular and critical reception was heightened after his choral work Song for Athene (1993) was used in the funeral service for Diana, princess of Wales.

Tavener continued to work with Mother Thekla: collaborations included We Shall See Him as He Is (1990), The Apocalypse (1992), and Let's Begin Again (1994), all of which set Thekla's densely symbolic spiritual texts for massed forces of voices and instruments. The two even co-authored a book, Ikons: Meditations in Words and Music (1994). Mother Thekla's ideas also informed Tavener's instrumental music of the period, such as Diódia for string quartet (1995), itself an offshoot of a never-completed 'metaphysical pantomime', The Toll Houses. But Tavener was beginning to broaden his compositional and spiritual palette: as early as Resurrection (1988) he had drawn on Indian music, and in the 1990s he became increasingly interested in the philosophies of Kathleen Raine and (above all) the Sufist philosopher Frithjof Schuon. Sufi and Indian influences were heard in Agraphon for soprano, percussion, and strings (1995), where they were employed for their symbolic relationship to tradition; their characteristic rhythmic patterns and florid melodic embellishments (often involving microtones) built upon Tavener's Byzantine explorations.

Fall and Resurrection for soloists, chorus, and orchestra (1995–7) was originally intended to depict Edenic paradise and the fall of Adam and Eve. However, under pressure from Prince Charles—who first contacted Tavener in June 1996—the premise was expanded to include original chaos (for which Tavener symbolically employed rigorous mathematical techniques derived from modernism) through to resurrection. Prince Charles became a friend, and Tavener composed numerous works for and in memory of members of the royal family. He was knighted in 2000.

Religious pluralism and late work

Tavener's growing affinity with the Sufic emphasis on the heart over mind, as well as his interest in non-Orthodox spiritual views, led him to become distanced from Mother Thekla. Works such as Mystagogia for orchestra (1998), and Ikon of Eros for soloists, violin, and orchestra (2000)—both of which require Tibetan temple bowls, as Tavener drew increasingly on non-western instruments—pointed towards the joyous, and large scale, exploration of ecstasy (Eros) in his final period. Indeed, it was to the poetry of Rumi, rather than the Orthodox church, that Tavener suggested world leaders should turn after the tragic events of 11 September 2001. The working relationship between Tavener and Mother Thekla came to an end in 2003, possibly precipitated by the unexpected arrival at the Normanby abbey of the latest in a long line of Tavener's female muses (often lovers), though a reconciliation was made before Mother Thekla's death in 2011.

Christian themes came into contact with Islamic (Sufi), Native American, Judaic, and Hindu texts in The Veil of the Temple for choir and orchestra (2002), an all-night vigil lasting some seven hours (an alternative two-hour version providing a taster of the real thing). Of necessity, it recycled pre-existing music (notably Tavener's The Lord's Prayer from 1982), and the multiple internal repetitions contributed greatly to the work's powerfully ritualistic (as well as theatrical) effect. The work showcased the ability of the soprano Patricia Rozario, whom Tavener had been working with since she created the role of Mary of Egypt. For Tavener, it was an attempt to articulate his universalist belief by removing 'the veils that hide the same basic truth of all authentic religions'; he considered the work 'the supreme achievement of my life' (

Tavener's suggestion that religions are fundamentally about the same thing was not uncontroversial; the setting of the ninety-nine names for Allah given in the Qu'ran in The Beautiful Names for solo tenor, chorus, and orchestra (2004) prompted a protest outside Westminster Cathedral when the work was premièred there in 2007. For all that the work displayed Tavener's latest musical and spiritual preoccupations—for instance, a Native American pow-wow drum represents Shiva, Tibetan temple bowls and gongs the Divine Breath, and so on—the work's essentially simple structure, organized around a sequence of related triads, recalled his music of the 1980s. Similar concerns underpinned works such as his Requiem and Towards Silence (both 2007), but they can also be found in pieces for smaller forces such as the Six Schuon Lieder (2004).

In 2007 Tavener required heart bypass surgery; he was unable to compose for some time after that. A renewed interest in Tolstoy, Beethoven, and Mozart gave rise to late works, and it was the spirit of Stravinsky, as well as that of the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez, that informed the masterly Requiem Fragments (2013), premièred posthumously in 2014. On 12 November 2013 he suffered a heart attack at his home in Child Okeford, Dorset, relating to his prior surgery and Marfan's syndrome; he was pronounced dead later that day at the Dorset County Hospital in Dorchester. He was survived by his wife and children.


  • J. Tavener and Mother Thekla, Ikons: meditations in words and music (1994)
  • G. Haydon, John Tavener: glimpses of paradise (1995)
  • J. Tavener, The music of silence: a composer's testament (1999)
  • P. Dudgeon, Lifting the veil: the biography of Sir John Tavener (2003)
  • New York Times (12 Nov 2013)



  • BFI NFTVA, documentary and interview footage


  • BL NSA, interview and documentary recordings


  • C. Barda, bromide fibre print, 1977, NPG
  • G. Newson, bromide fibre print, 1992, NPG
  • N. McBeath, bromide print, 1999, NPG
  • photograph, 2000, Rex Features / Shutterstock
  • M. Taylor, oils, 2001, NPG [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)