Sir John Tavener, the British composer famous for works including The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene, has died aged 69.
He died peacefully at his home in Oxfordshire.
Sir John’s music was inspired by a deep and changing spirituality, with the Orthodox faith which he converted to in 1977 having had a strong and clearly audible influence on his output. He also held the Universalist belief that all organised religions are simply different interpretations of the same underlying forces, a tenet underpinning his more recent work.
The first piece for which he gained widespread attention was oratorio The Whale, premiered in 1968 at the London Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert.
He had suffered from poor health for much of his life, suffering a stroke, two heart attacks and undergoing emergency heart surgery followed by months of intensive care in 2007.
James Rushton, managing director of publisher Chester Music, said Sir John was ‘one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years’ and described his body of work as ‘one of the most significant contributions to classical music in our times’.
‘For all of those fortunate enough to have known him, John was a man of strong beliefs, huge personal warmth, loyalty and humour. He will be much missed.’
Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director of the Barbican Centre and former director of the Proms, said on Radio 4’s Front Row that Sir John was ‘one of the key original voices in British music in our time’.
‘He started off with The Whale in ’68, Celtic Requiem in the seventies ‒ really quite trendy, beloved of the Beatles, he was quite worldly then. One of the first times I met him in the seventies he was dismayed that a carwash had collapsed on his Rolls Royce. The conversion to this deeply spiritual music really came through joining the Orthodox church … and the wonderful Ultimos Ritos which was one of the massive, ambitious pieces that he wrote using Bach’s B Minor Mass. He loved the music of the past ‒ not just Bach [but] Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, and it continually inspired him.
‘Rather like Benjamin Britten … John stuck to his guns through a period of unfashionability. It was The Protecting Veil in 1991 at the Proms which really re-established him, and that was an extraordinary work which went right round the world. And so Song for Athene at the Diana funeral really cemented that and took him into a whole new level.’
Choral composer Eric Whitacre told Channel 4 News: ‘In some ways he brought back this tradition after hundreds of years, of inducing twilight, a sense of weightlessness and timelessness in the listener.’
Writing in the Guardian, Tom Service called him ‘the single most popular British classical composer of the late 20th and 21st centuries. His music has become part of public consciousness, making him a unique cultural figure.’
Sir John’s Three Shakespeare Sonnets will receive its world premiere at Southwark Cathedral on 15 November, performed by the South Iceland Chamber Choir. Tickets are still available. Click here for more information.
Sir John Tavener, composer, 28 Jan 1944 ‒ 12 November 2013