Sir John Tavener, January 28, 1944 – November 12, 2013
“I have met certain Orthodox monks—in their presence you feel that the saints of old continue to live amongst us, because, like them, they are ‘dead to the world.’ ‘Dead to the world’ translates for me in auditory terms as ‘silent music.’”
Sir John Tavener
The Music of Silence, 159
Throughout his career, Sir John Tavener sought to create what he called “silent music,” and he found an audience for this music in both sacred and secular musical spheres. On Christmas Eve, 2013 the King’s College Choir of Cambridge University remembered Tavener in their Lessons and Carols service through their performance of his beloved choral work The Lamb, a setting of the poem by William Blake. The Lamb gained Tavener great respect when he sent the manuscript to the premiere British college choir in November of 1982, and they scheduled it into their Lessons and Carols service for that year, allowing his music to reach millions of listeners. Ever since, Tavener’s music has had a broad audience outside of the typical classical music scene. Millions of viewers around the world heard one of his many funeral pieces, Song for Athene, when Princess Diana’s body was carried out of Westminster Abbey in 1997. Though the music of John Rutter, his classmate from prep school, may have had more popular appeal in performances of sacred music, Tavener’s sound communicated the sacred in a way that spoke to those outside of his own British Orthodox community and even to those outside the broader Christian church, to all listeners in search of transcendent music.
Tavener followed on the heels of minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. These minimalists’ project sought to reduce music to its most fundamental elements and examine them through repetition and permeation. Unlike their predecessors, however, the “Holy Minimalists,” including Tavener as well as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, composed in service of the Divine, rather than as an artistic project alone. Tavener’s unique form of minimalism was a rejection of the directional harmonic language of Western art music, which he often referred to as music from the “scholastic” tradition, in favor of harmonies and forms that reflect sacred chant traditions.
Tavener’s quest for a theological and musical home took him from the Presbyterian Church where he was an organist, to the Roman Catholic, and finally the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1977. In Byzantine and Russian Znamenny chant, he found a musical and theological (or metaphysical, as he preferred to call it) tradition to guide him. For Tavener, tradition was the answer to the modern aesthetic dilemma, that is, the obsession with innovation, to which minimalism was a response. Tradition does not demand innovation; it requires submission. “When you write something, if you believe you are created in the image of God, then music in a sense comes from God... tradition is God, at its highest point. Therefore, in practice, it should be no longer ‘I’ who ‘composes’ but tradition that composes in me” (Tavener, 36). In his autobiography, Tavener spoke of his development as a composer as his continual striving to divest his music of the self in order to let tradition, or God, speak in his music. His theory of the artistic act as a sacrifice of the self to tradition echoes the poet T. S. Eliot, whose poetry Tavener admired. In Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot wrote, “What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent). According to Tavener in the late 1990s, this self-sacrifice is what distinguishes sacred music from Western art music. When the artist’s personality is extinguished, what is left is God. In musical terms, Tavener expressed the sound of the eternal God through the presence of the ison, the traditional drone note from Byzantine chant, found in all of Tavener’s music from this period.
In the last decade of his life, Tavener revised some of his claims about sacred music and incorporated the via negativa theology from other non-Western religious traditions into his “metaphysical” music. Tavener once responded to a question about his earlier statements regarding sacred music, “I just think that my way towards God has been to write music. I don’t think it’s the sound of God, I think that’s romantic clap-trap” (Battle 2011). His compositions took his journey toward God into the realms of Sufi and Hindu writings as well. “‘I reached a point where everything I wrote was terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of the Orthodox Church,’ he said, ‘and I felt the need, in my music at least, to become more universalist: to take in other colors, other languages’” (White 2007). His Lament for Jerusalem from 2002 combines texts from the Gospels, Psalms, and Rumi’s Masnavi to lament the (temporary) loss of the Beatific Vision through these three traditions. In 2004, one of his great supporters, Prince Charles, commissioned a work setting the ninety-nine names of Allah from the Koran. It was daringly performed in Westminster Abbey, though Tavener admitted he never consulted a Muslim about writing such a composition.
Many music critics consider these last few works to be expressions of Tavener’s real compositional voice. But works from his earlier, strictly Orthodox period have recently been used in critically acclaimed films to mark pivotal theological insights, providing a holy aura distant from the visual action. In the film adaptation of P. D. James’s Children of Men, Tavener’s Eternity’s Sunrise, a setting of another of Blake’s poems, carries the last baby on earth, the hope of the world, through apocalyptic scenes. Terrence Malick uses Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” extensively in his breathtaking film Tree of Life to introduce both the subject of the film, the Problem of Evil, and the Divine answer to it: that death is not an end but a beginning. “But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Thy beauty, give rest to him whom thou hast chosen, because Thou lovest mankind.”
Death and the life after is the subject of many of Tavener’s works. Tavener considered his last significant work to be Towards Silence, a meditation on the four stages of death according to the Vedanta, written for four string quartets spatially separated. The piece draws together his typical tonal, wandering harmonies with his more recent forays into Hindu and Sufi mysticism. Just after finishing the work he had his own near-death experience in 2007, when he suffered two heart attacks that kept him in the hospital for nearly a year, and he lost his brother to the same disease that weakened his heart and made him a recluse for the rest of his life.
Even in this last significant work, he maintained that his music is ultimately an expression of silence, the ecstatic experience of the Divine received fully in death. From his Orthodox perspective, he found a visual explanation of silence in Byzantine ikons:
If you look at the very great ikons of the Byzantine period, you see angels transfixed as they gaze upon God. I’ve often thought: is it possible to produce that kind of ecstatic frozen petrified silence in music? I’ve certainly tried to do it in various pieces. This kind of silence one could almost take even further and say it was frozen or uncreated Eros, because it comes in the form of longing (this is something beyond the yearning of religious sentiment), it’s a petrified longing, it’s a longing that goes beyond the longing of one person for another... it is the longing for God... This longing for God which, as in ikons, is somehow petrified and silent (Tavener, 157).
Tavener’s theology of silence as an expression of the divine and a musical work has not been without criticism. In his book, Theology, Music and Time, Jeremy Begbie offers a musical description of Tavener’s compositional style and a criticism of Tavener’s theological approach to music. Begbie argues that, although a helpful antidote to the noise and clutter of our lives, like the cold cathedral Tavener’s music is too far removed from the reality of God’s entrance into time, redemption of time, and ultimate restoration of creation in time. Tavener frequently depicts the Resurrection in his music, but Begbie worries that Christ’s suffering on the cross is overlooked in the rush to Easter. Ultimately, Begbie finds Tavener’s depiction of the eschaton to be shallow. “The eternity of Revelation is one of multiplicity, activity and abundance—the new earth and the new heaven, complete with heavenly city (Rev. 21, 22). Tavener’s eschaton appears to entail a divine eternity of absolute simplicity, and the negation of temporality…” (Begbie, 146).
But Tavener’s eschewal of directional harmonies and formal structures that have a clear progression does not actually equate with the negation of temporality itself. The very bounds put on music by the sounds which surround it require that it always be a temporal art. The breaking through of the sound of eternity, what Tavener calls silence, is rather a kind of Sabbath music. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It [the Sabbath] is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world” (Heschel, 10). Heschel described the Sabbath in terms much as Tavener described the ison in his music: “For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world” (Heschel, 89).
Begbie’s criticisms perhaps predicted Tavener’s later universalism. Like some other famous apophatic theologians, such as Thomas Merton, Tavener found that Hindu, Sufi, and Jewish mystical writings ultimately express the same truth about God and our experience of the Divine as silence. But, seeing Tavener’s works as Sabbath music addresses Begbie’s worry. As with the Sabbath, Tavener’s sound of eternity cannot stand on its own, but must be tied to the other six days of the week, the creation which God delights in and redeems. For those times when we need to hear the Divine voice break into the clatter of our busy lives to bring a word that the toil and fleeting hours are not the ultimate things, Tavener has left us with a great many treasures.
Katherine Kennedy Steiner is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.
Begbie, Jeremy. Theology, Music and Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.
Tavener, John. The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament. Brian Keeble, ed. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999.
Battle, Laura. “Mortality Tales; Composer Sir John Tavener Is a Paradox: A Recluse given to Provocative Statements, a Devout Christian with a Weakness for Fast Cars…” Financial Times (London, England), (May 14, 2011).
White, Michael. “Christian Composer, Inspired by Allah’s 99 Names.” New York Times (June 17, 2007).