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.

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood