John Tavener accepting the Ivor Novello Classical Music Award in 2005. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

John Tavener: The search for the music of God

The celebrated English composer has died at the age of 69. While he was better-known for pieces like Song for Athene and The Lamb, listening to his 2003 work The Veil of the Temple is the best way to appreciate his genius.

A common criticism of the composer John Tavener was that his work was "easy listening", prime fodder for Classic FM and schmaltzy adverts. There can be no doubt that he had popular appeal - in 1992, his cello sonata The Protecting Veil topped the classical charts for months, and millions wept as his choral work Song for Athene was sung as Princess Diana's coffin was borne out of Westminster Abbey in 1997. His became the sound of a time: his setting of the William Blake poem "The Lamb" was sung at the Millennium Dome in the final moments of 1999. The diverse sources of the tributes paid to him since his death demonstrate this – as well as fellow composers and musicians, the Prince of Wales has let it be known that he is "saddened" by his death. Tavener was famous in a way more usually associated with a pop star – he was even signed to The Beatles' Apple label early on in his career, and was nominated twice for the Mercury Prize.

Tavener, who has died at the age of 69 after struggling with ill health for much of his life, had another side to his work, though, that more rarely made it beyond the awareness of those who make, read, and write about classical music. His conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 had a profound impact on his composing, as he moved away from the modernism of The Whale and Celtic Requiem and began importing ideas from Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgical traditions and eastern harmonies. Always, he told the BBC in 2003, he was trying to find "a music that already exists in the cosmos" or "the uncreated music of God".

Nowhere is Tavener's search for "the essence of God" more evident than in The Veil of the Temple, the seven-hour choral work he composed in 2003. It is vast and complex, and is comprised of eight cycles, each of which ascends in pitch and reworks themes and motifs from what has gone before. Snatches of melody, verses from St John's gospel, and rhythms from Hindu devotions weave in and out of the motets, chants and solos that make up the piece. Tavener himself likened it to a "gigantic prayer wheel", but there is so much more than just devotional music to this piece. As well as being intended as the accompaniment for a dusk-to-dawn vigil, it is a kind of oratorio, telling the story from the rending of the veil in the temple in Jerusalem as Jesus died on the cross to Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, seeing the risen Christ, and perceiving that the veil between death and life has been lifted.

It's also a piece inspired by a particular building – the Temple Church in London, where it was first performed. As Tavener wrote in the sleeve notes when the recording was released, when the Knights Templar built their beautiful round church, they were seeking to recreate something of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for their own place of worship and burial. The Veil of the Temple imports this, giving the Knights a theme in Cycle 8 of surpassing beauty that evokes a great feeling of peace and permanence. Occasionally interspersed between the vocal harmonies, though, are discordant organ phrases and the melancholy tolling of bells, which is Tavener's reminder that all is not at peace in the place the Knights sought to found anew with their church – Jerusalem itself.

Setting its spiritual and historical resonances aside for a moment, The Veil of the Temple is also just brilliant music to get lost in. The layering of liturgical chant with the clean harmonies of the western church and the intricate rhythms and cadences of eastern traditions is breathtaking. It is also written on a scale we are rarely treated to these days - it requires more than one choir, soloists who have been trained in both orthodox psalm-singing and the Hindu Samaveda, a brass ensemble, a virtuoso organist, Tibetan horns, temple bowls, tubular bells and more. Tavener himself told the Guardian earlier this year that he thought "the days of seven-hour pieces are gone" and that even he was writing in a more compressed language these days.

It is to my eternal regret that I didn't go to the premiere in 2003. A close friend who did describes an extraordinary atmosphere of tension and anticipation over the hours of music, as it built implacably towards its glorious climax, and the catharsis when the musicians arrived at Cycle 8's "Light of Christ" just as the light of dawn began to filter in through the windows of the Temple Church. Steven Poole, who recorded his experiences of the night for the Guardian, said he would be quite happy to hear "Mother of God" from Cycle 7 over and over again all night, and I agree with him - a few simple-sounding chords underneath Lermontov's beautiful words are capable of provoking an emotional response that even the crashes and squeals of the piece's climax can't emulate.

Tavener called The Veil of the Temple "the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed". Listen to it: there can be no more fitting way to mark his passing.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era