Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Monday, 27 December, 1999, 18:00 GMT
Music for a new millennium

John Tavener John Tavener: Music is prayer

John Tavener, the composer whose choral work A New Beginning will usher in the new century at the Dome, is a man straddling two worlds.

A classical composer for 32 of his 55 years, his work nevertheless has the catchiness of pop music.

Materialistic, with a taste for cars and the best French restaurants, Tavener is also deeply spiritual.

At the peak of his career, he is slowly dying of an incurable disease.

Spotted by Beatles

Born in London on 28 January 1944, John Tavener showed his musical talents at an early age and by the time he entered Highgate School he was already a proficient pianist and organist.

He went on to the Royal Academy of Music where he won several major prizes for composition.

He first caught the public ear in 1968 with his avant-garde composition The Whale - for loudhailer, metronome and orchestra - which took its London audience by storm.

Thanks to his brother Roger, a builder, who was helping to renovate the Apple Records headquarters in London, the Beatles heard Tavener's music and offered him the use of the Apple label to record several of his pieces.

Because his music is approachable Tavener has always been popular.

His Akathist of Thanksgiving was given a standing ovation in a packed Westminster Abbey at its premiere in 1988.

In 1992 The Protecting Veil, for solo cello and strings, headed the classical charts for a year.

In 1997 his Song for Athene was played at Princess Diana's funeral.

Crucible of creativity

For Tavener, music is prayer. He joined the Orthodox church in 1977, and since then much of his music has derived from Greek or Russian Orthodox musical traditions.

He surrounds himself with Russian icons in his Sussex home and carries a Byzantine cross with him wherever he goes.

The temptation is to assume this is because Tavener suffers from Marfan's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that attacks the heart, lungs and eyes. In fact, he started to move towards the Eastern church long before the condition appeared.

There is this terrible disconnection, not just between religion and music, but between all aspects of life
John Tavener

"I cannot disconnect religion and music. There is this terrible disconnection, not just between religion and music, but between all aspects of life," he has said.

"So much western music is created in this world and leaves you in this world. The music of the East is written not so much with the world in mind, and it takes you somewhere else."

Once the muse is upon him the music pours out like water from a spring. His inspiration from start to finish comes, he feels, from God.

For that reason he admits he has always been a bad businessman.

John Tavener's mentor is the 79-year-old Russian-born abbess of a North Yorkshire nunnery, Mother Thekla, who has guided him towards the Orthodox tradition of musical artistry as an act of worship.

She is as devoted to him as he is to her - and is reported to have once attacked an unsympathetic music critic with a goat bucket.
Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

See also:
04 Nov 99 |  UK
'Cookin' new anthem' to greet millennium
26 Jul 99 |  UK
Sparks set to fly on millennium night
08 Sep 99 |  UK
Prayers to start millennium party

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories