Mortality tales

British composer John Tavener at home in Dorset

It’s an unseasonably hot spring day and John Tavener’s Dorset farmhouse is surrounded by signs of new life: flower beds are brimming with bluebells, young goats bleat from a nearby pen, chickens occupy a scruffy patch of lawn and the composer’s four-year-old son Orlando is charging from room to room with excited shrieks. So it seems strange to kick-start our conversation with a discussion of mortality but that’s where I begin.

Death is, after all, one of the enduring themes of Tavener’s work and he admits it has been a preoccupation and source of inspiration throughout his life. “Ever since the age of about four, I connected the spiritual with the musical,” he says, “and quite early on in my life, death as well.”

At the age of 15, Tavener began what would become his first major work, Three Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a grave triptych on the themes of sin, death and corruption; since then he has written three requiems and numerous pieces in memoriam, and his place in the popular psyche was secured when his short choral work, Song for Athene, was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome in the early 1990s, Tavener’s interest has sharpened. This genetic condition affecting the body’s connective tissues has led to serious heart problems in recent years, an experience that is linked, albeit obliquely, to his most recent large-scale work, Towards Silence, which will be performed at the Salisbury International Arts Festival this month.

It was a reading of René Guénon’s Man and his Becoming According to the Vedanta that prompted Tavener to write this commentary on the four States of Atma. “The Christian concept of death is not so carefully written out but the Hindu states of being are very accurately told and have a certain musicality,” he explains.

A discussion with Paul Robertson, founder of the Medici Quartet, led to a formal commission and a score for four string quartets and a Tibetan temple bowl. Vaishvanara (waking state), Taijasa (dream state), Prajna (condition of deep sleep) and Turiya (that which is beyond) are represented as four movements, beginning in an extremely complex and agitated manner, and concluding with a gradual atrophy of sound and a disturbing adjustment, not of dynamics exactly but energy.

“It’s a most unusual piece and culturally it’s a very rare thing because we’re so frightened of issues around mortality,” Robertson has explained. “It doesn’t feel like a concert hall piece and we’ve always encouraged people not to clap because it seems inappropriate.”

Towards Silence acquired added poignancy in 2008 when, between its completion and its premiere, both Tavener and Robertson experienced their own near-deaths: the former suffering a series of massive heart attacks and the latter an aortic dissection.

“Looking back, I had this very strong feeling that it might be the last piece I wrote, and in a sense it has been,” Tavener says. “I’ve written tiny pieces since I’ve been ill but I like to think of this as the last serious piece that I’ll write.”

Tavener is only 67 but the man before me looks much older – a frail bundle of carefully folded limbs – and I wonder at his patience as an ageing father at the centre of this noisy domestic whirl. Children’s television blares from the kitchen while “Mini” the dachshund scampers into the room and laps at my water glass before leaping on to the sofa beside him. It is his family, however – his three children and, especially, his kindly, no-nonsense wife Maryanna – whom Tavener credits for his survival, and for shifting his priorities from a life centred on work. “As a selfish teenager, 20-year-old, 30-year-old, even 40-year-old, I didn’t want children,” he says. “I now love the sight of a baby but I absolutely couldn’t bear it before.”

Ill health has also provided time for reflection. After a Presbyterian upbringing, Tavener, the son of an upmarket Hampstead builder, was drawn to Catholicism in the 1960s before making a formal conversion to the Orthodox Church in 1977. Since then he has been vocal about his faith in a way that has suggested to many a conscious aping of the English mystic tradition, and has led critics to accuse him of affectation or, worse, hubris. For many years he has worn his hair at shoulder length and past portraits have shown him with eyes cast heavenwards and pen poised in hand like a self-styled prophet. Today Tavener’s hair is still long but there are no robes or ikons – even the gold crucifix that always adorned his rakishly unbuttoned collar is nowhere to be seen – and he is dressed simply in a shirt, jeans and sneakers.

“I’d sort of like to say that in this period since I’ve been ill I’ve been looking back on everything I’ve written and I’m proud of that but I’m not so proud of everything I’ve said in public,” he says. “I think I could have been less spiritually showy.”

Image aside, however, Tavener’s music has always had its believers and doubters: those who swoon – at its strange harmonies and quivering glissandos, its periods of silence and sustained sound – and those who squirm. Along with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Tavener’s compositional style has been dubbed “holy minimalism” (“I’d almost prefer ‘the new complexity’, ” he has retorted) because of their Orthodox faith and their rejection of prevailing cultural trends, such as electronic sound. Tavener believes the mass appeal of their music, and the extraordinary interest surrounding the recent discovery of Alessandro Striggio’s 16th-century Mass in 40 Parts, indicates a collective yearning for spirituality in an increasingly vacuous age.

I remind him that he once described the act of composing as revealing God’s music. “Yes, I wish I hadn’t said that too,” he smiles weakly. “It sounds awfully pretentious to my ears nowadays. 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.”

In recent years, Tavener has been inspired by ideas from across the religious spectrum. In 2003 he premiered The Veil of the Temple, a seven-hour choral meditation that journeys from Sufi poetry, through Gnostic texts to aspects of Hindu theology; the following year he was commissioned by Prince Charles to write The Beautiful Names, a setting of the 99 names of Allah. Since then Tavener has even mentioned the influence of Apache shamanism. Although his own faith appears undimmed he admits he is not as engaged with the church as he once was.

“I suppose I need the Orthodox services less and less, although we have a small chapel here, I prefer just to be silent and contemplate,” he says. “I don’t like all the noise and all the vestments. I know the words and I prefer just to read them in the book.”

For some time Tavener’s public persona has been characterised by striking dualities – duplicities, even: a classical composer who has achieved commercial success, a recluse given to provocative statement, a devout Christian who has a confessed weakness for fast cars. But he has not always been presented this way. After the success of The Whale, a daring oratorio that premiered in 1968 with a performance that secured the reputation of the newly formed London Sinfonietta, Tavener was hailed as the poster boy for the new avant-garde. Public interest focused on his starry connections in the early 1970s: a close association with Arianna Stassinopoulos, then the charismatic president of the Cambridge Union and now co-founder of the Huffington Post, a friendship with the actress Mia Farrow, and his working relationship with the Beatles, after he became one of the first artists signed to their Apple label.

Given Tavener’s distaste for what he has rather vaguely described as “modernism” – a decay he identifies across the arts in recent decades – I ask if he resents having been thrust into the arena of pop culture. “I think it gives you too much opportunity to show off and I don’t like that side of me very much,” he replies, “but I don’t think the music was ever seriously affected and that’s the most important thing.”

A short work titled Popule Meus will premiere at this summer’s Proms but it was written a few years ago and Tavener now devotes more time to listening than composing. Bach’s St John Passion, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov have recently moved him to tears. “I’ve known these pieces throughout my life and I’ve loved them very much, but never have they had quite such a devastating effect,” he says. “I’m much weaker now, I’m probably more relaxed, and a lot of my life is now spent being very close to my family.”

Another piece that has acquired new significance is Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I was listening to it with my son and he was getting all the eeyores, and it was just a very moving moment.” As if on cue, the door swings open and Orlando strides up to the piano, oblivious to his father’s gentle questions, and starts hammering out a nonsense tune.

‘Towards Silence’ will be performed on May 28, and can also be heard every day as an installation work in the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral, May 20-June 4, as part of the Salisbury International Arts Festival,

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