British composer John Tavener, whose austere choral and orchestral works reflected his religious journey from West to East, died Tuesday. He was 69. Tavener’s publisher, Chester Music, said he died at his home in Child Okeford, southern England.
Born and trained in London, Tavener burst onto the public scene in 1968 with the help of The Beatles and is often remembered for his beautiful “Song for Athene” — reworked as “Songs of Angels” — that caught the public’s mood at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
His wistful, elegant setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb” (1982) became a staple of Christmas carol services.
“I think there are an awful lot of artists around who are very good at leading us into hell,” Tavener once said. “I would rather someone would show me the way to paradise.”
An imposing figure, Tavener was strikingly tall — 6 feet 6 inches — thin, and wore his hair long.
James Rushton, managing director of Chester Music, called Tavener “one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years.”
“His large body of work — dramatic, immediate, haunting, remaining long in the memory of all who have heard it, and always identifiably his — is one of the most significant contributions to classical music in our times,” Rushton said.
Tavener’s music was distinguished by quiet passages that seemed to shimmer like dawn light, and by its otherworldly intensity and moments of ecstasy. He spoke of some compositions arriving instantaneously in his mind.
“If one is going to create this eternal, celestial music, one has got to listen, to be silent, to hear the angel of inspiration dictate,” he said in his 60th year.
Tavener was born Jan. 28, 1944, into a music-loving family in north London. At an early age he began to improvise and compose at the piano. As a teenage organist in a Presbyterian church, he conducted adventurous modern works including Michael Tippet’s “A Child of Our Time,” Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”
Abandoning an ambition to be a concert pianist, Tavener studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
In the late 1960s, his cantata “The Whale” brought him fame with the help of The Beatles, who released it on their Apple records label.
Tavener said he caught the attention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party by playing a tape of his opera, “Notre Dames des Fleurs,” inspired by Jean Genet’s novel about a prisoner’s sexual fantasies. The opera — which was later lost — featured obscene lyrics, a choir, and what Tavener called his “thunderous” performance on the organ. Lennon offered a recording deal the next day, Tavener said, but it needed another Beatle to get “The Whale” to market.
“It took Ringo, who is a lot more pragmatic than John,” Tavener said in a BBC interview. “Ringo actually brought out ‘The Whale’ and ‘Celtic Requiem.'”
“The Whale,” he said, “was a piece written by an angry young man … because the world didn’t see the cosmos in metaphysical terms.”
Tavener’s later, better-known works flowed from his conversion to Orthodox Christianity and his collaboration with Mother Thekla, a Russian emigre and Orthodox nun to whom he turned for support after his mother died in 1985.
Thekla’s short “The Life of St. Mary of Egypt” inspired his 1992 opera, “Mary of Egypt,” and she provided many of the librettos for other works.
The fruits of their collaboration included “The Protecting Veil” in 1987, “Song for Athene” (1993), “The Apocalypse” (1993), “Fall and Resurrection” (1999), and “We Shall See Him as He Is” (1993).
Tavener dedicated The Music Of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (1999) to Mother Thekla. She “helped me put my music and my life together,” he said.
Their relationship was severed in the early years of the 21st century as Tavener’s interests spread beyond Orthodoxy to embrace the insights of other traditions. She died in 2011.
His marriage in 1974 to Victoria Maragopoulou, a dancer, effectively ended after eight months, though they formally divorced only a decade later on grounds of non-consummation — which Tavener later said was not true.
Tavener suffered many health problems. He had the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome, suffered a stroke at 30, and in 1991 had difficult surgery for a leaking aortic valve.
He was supported in his recovery by Maryanna Schaefer, who jolted him out of his self-absorption and later in 1991 became his wife.
“After that I thought, what is this whole thing about my precious art? I can’t do this, I can’t have children, I can’t that and I can’t do the other thing because of my precious art,” Tavener said in an interview for “A Portrait,” a Naxos recording.
“Suddenly I thought, right, away with all this, this is total nonsense. This is living in the most ridiculously self-centered, arrogant way. Of course I can have children.”
The couple had two daughters, Theodora and Sofia, and a son, Orlando.
Tavener, whose work was championed by Prince Charles, received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for services to music.
“He was an extraordinary British composer whose music will stand for some time,” said Daniel Jaffe, reviews editor at the BBC Music Magazine.