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 web editor of the New Statesman.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism