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

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Why Prince’s wife ate other people’s room service (and other Paisley Park tales)

She couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

 I’m on the phone to Prince’s first wife and I’m trying to picture the wrestling. He had a very strong upper body, Mayte Garcia says brightly – but she had very powerful legs.

“When he knocked me down, I would take my legs around his body and squeeze really hard. So he stopped tackling me down to the floor.” She doesn’t know why they wrestled – couples do weird things, don’t they? Like the hypnosis. In her new book, she says she loved the hypnosis because it was the only time he’d let her talk without interrupting her.

Garcia could not have imagined at 16 – shortly before her parents gave Prince legal guardianship over her, and three years before he put her on birth control – that they would scale such philosophical heights together: the Third Eye, the migration of souls. Seventeen years after their marriage ended, she still sometimes hears the click click click of his spurs down the hall.

What was in Prince’s bathroom? Oil of Olay, fancy soaps and distinctly feminine perfumes. His kitchen? Tostitos, teas by Celestial Seasonings, and honey that comes in those little plastic bears.

They met after her “Puerto Rican supermom” insisted that Garcia get a videotape of herself bellydancing to him backstage. Her note said, PS: I am 16 years old.

During their getting-to-know you sessions, he liked to get a bowl of popcorn and tip a whole bag of Goobers (chocolate peanuts) into it. Once Garcia had joined the New Power Generation as his dancer, her relationship with food became less enjoyable. She couldn’t go to the gym because she was indoors most of the day waiting for his phone calls (Prince’s girlfriends didn’t have his number) – so, in order to keep her dancer’s body, she would eat salad standing up, while he ate fettuccine Alfredo.

She took leftover bread and Thousand Island dressing from other people’s room service trolleys in hotel corridors, because she couldn’t afford to order her own on the $300 a week he was paying her.

Then one day, he saw her standing next to a bowl of whipped cream; so he docked her wages. “He could be mean,” she writes. “But it made him human, and he seemed to like and respect me more when I checked him on it.”

Prince rarely touched people (germs), so when you saw him shaking another girl’s hand you knew you were on the way out. He wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for Garcia but she knows three other women who think it’s about them. She says she wants every girl to think it’s about them. She quotes Michelle Obama: “When they go low, I go high.” She calls him her dear friend.

The couple broke up a while after their child died. Prince didn’t allow an amniocentesis test and the baby was born severely disabled. Garcia says they decided together to let him die. He invited Oprah into their house and showed her the nursery, as though the baby was alive. Mayte was taken from the bed where she slept with his ashes, made up, put on camera and told not to mention the nasty business.

“Oprah was planned months ahead of time,” she tells me now, breezily. “He had this album coming out. He was like, ‘It’s Oprah.’ I’m like, ‘I get it!’”

There’s the facts, and then there’s the way she chooses to talk about them. Who is to say how you should deal with memories of years of abuse?

“People say that forgiving is my flaw, but I really believe that holding grudges and anger is a waste of energy,” she says. “We are all going to die. We are all evolving, trying to become better people, so let it go.”

Prince died a year ago. With The Passing, as she calls it, her desire to write a book increased. “I wanted to honour him,” she tells me. “He was a great friend. He listened, he cared, and he always treated me like a princess. Yes, he was a tyrant. We all knew that.”

I ask her what she would do if she could have him back for one night. She says she’d tackle him again. She misses the popcorn. “They don’t make Goobers any more.” 

“The Most Beautiful: My Life With Prince” by Mayte Garcia is published by Trapeze
 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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