Sir John Tavener, British composer whose choral music combined mystical and celestial beauty, has died. He was perhaps best known for his choral work sung at Princess Di’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, Sept. 6, 1997. The ethereal Song for Athene was sung as Diana’s coffin was carried out at the end of the service. The work is also known as Alleluia. May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest.
According to Tavener’s publisher, Chester Music, the composer died Tuesday, at his home in Child Okeford, in southern England. He was 69 years old.
He became an organist in the Presbyterian church while still a teenager. Even though he started out pursuing a career as a concert pianist, he switched to composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
His early compositions were secular and got some help from the Beatles. They released his 1968 cantata, The Whale, on their label under Apple records. The composer said this work “was written by an angry young man,” angry at the world for not seeing the “cosmos in metaphysical terms.”
When the composer’s mother died in 1985, he turned to Russian emigre and Orthodox nun, Mother Thelka, for support. He converted to Orthodox Christianity and wrote religious choral works with librettos often being written by Thelka.
Tavener remarked once that there are many artists “who are very good at leading us into hell.” He would rather meet one who would show him “the way to paradise.”
His music had sustained, quiet passages, often described as “other-worldly.” When he was 60 years old, he said, “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.”
Song for Athene was composed in 1993 in memory of a family friend, Athene Hariades, who was killed while cycling. The choral work was commissioned by the BBC. Tavener combined the Orthodox musical style and texts with selections from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
He had health problems all of his life. His first marriage lasted only eight months; he married a second time in 1991 and had two daughters and one son. He is survived by his children and second wife. He was 6 feet 6 inches tall and thin. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 2000 for his services to music. Prince Charles was a great admirer of Tavener’s music. The last few years of his life, his interest in spirituality and the pursuit of innocence spread beyond Orthodox Christianity. It included Sufi music, American Indian art and music, Hindu and others.
Song for Athene begins very quietly. The upper voices of the choir are almost inaudible while the basses supply a continuous drone. The first line is: “Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” The music builds gradually until the last line bids the listener to come and enjoy the “rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.” For composer John Tavener, the beauty of his choral music will surely “sing thee to thy rest.”
By: Cynthia Collins