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14 February 2024

John Tavener’s sacred music for a secular world

The English composer’s accidental masterpiece The Protecting Veil communicates a deep human longing for the eternal.

By Jason Cowley

On Christmas Eve I had the good fortune to be present for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Far away, in the Holy Land, war raged in Gaza and the churches of Bethlehem were closed. At one point, as the choir sang the hymn “The Christ-Child Lay on Mary’s Lap”, my eyes filled with tears. I had a similar experience last weekend during a performance of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil at Saffron Hall in the old Quaker town of Saffron Walden in Essex. The solo cellist was Guy Johnston, with the violinist Thomas Gould leading the unconducted Britten Sinfonia chamber orchestra, and together they held the audience in rapt and solemn attention.

Saffron Hall is located on the campus of Saffron Walden County High School and has a world-class programme of events and concerts: on a visit there last November, I saw a virtuoso performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.

“I’m sorry there is no encore,” he said at the end while praising the exceptional acoustics. “But the aria is its own encore.”

I have seen The Protecting Veil performed live before but never with Steven Isserlis, at whose request the piece was written, as the solo cellist. It takes its inspiration from the moment Mary, the Mother of God, is said to have appeared before worshippers at the Blachernae church in Constantinople during an all-night vigil in the tenth century. The apparition inspired the besieged Christian Greeks to withstand an onslaught from Saracen marauders and it was felt as if Mary had wrapped her protecting veil around them.

Begun as a much shorter work, The Protecting Veil is in some ways an accidental masterpiece. Tavener was asked by Isserlis to write a ten-minute piece for cello and strings, capturing the purity and simplicity of Christian Orthodox church music. During its composition it deepened into something longer and more complex: a full cello concerto.

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Born into a Presbyterian family in 1944, Tavener, who was a music scholar at Highgate School and later studied at the Royal Academy of Music, converted to the Orthodox Church in his thirties, and his spiritual music restlessly seeks after the eternal. “I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God,” he said.

The Protecting Veil is both ecstatic and contemplative. With its chant-like austerities and melodic repetitions, it is a kind of extended prayer. Tavener called it an attempt “to make a lyrical ikon in sound”: devotional music that was “highly stylised, geometrically formed and meditative in character”. It premiered at the 1989 BBC Proms, before a half-empty Royal Albert Hall: Isserlis was the solo cellist and received a rapturous standing ovation that late-summer evening. The applause has never stopped. His subsequent recording of The Protecting Veil topped the classical charts and, improbably, was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 1992; a later Tavener work, from 1993, Song for Athene, was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.

Johnston, who calls Isserlis his mentor, says it “takes quite some stamina” to perform The Protecting Veil. “The cellist is playing in the stratosphere for much of the time.” The listener is taken on a journey, mostly serene. But there are also moments of disruption and abrupt shifts in register and tone; in one section, a long lament, it sounds as if the solo cello is in mourning for a broken world.

With his long, receding hair, deep tan and loose-fitting white clothes, Tavener, in photographs, looked as if he’d just returned from a long summer holiday in Greece. Perhaps he had. He was famous and he was rich. And there remained something of the old hippie about him even into older age. In the Sixties he’d known John Lennon and Tavener’s “dramatic cantata” The Whale, from 1966, was released on the Beatles’ Apple label.

Some have mocked his spiritual music as conforming to a genre of “sacred minimalism”: he is grouped with Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, both composers I like. But Tavener was no pseud. He was utterly sincere and endlessly questing. Much of his adult life was blighted by extremely poor health: he suffered from Marfan syndrome, had a stroke aged 36 and several heart attacks. He endured debilitating abdominal pain. Perhaps he longed for the eternal so intensely because he knew just how fragile and vulnerable we are. “Suffering is a kind of ecstasy, in a way,” he said. “Having pain all the time makes me terribly, terribly grateful for every moment I’ve got.”

Christianity, wrote the philosopher Bryan Magee, an agnostic, in his monograph The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, was a form of “anti-art”: “The alienation of man against his own nature, especially his emotional nature… the devaluation of life and the world and hence, inevitably, their wonderfulness… all this is profoundly at odds with the very nature and existence of art.”

Magee, a Wagnerian and sensualist, was right about much but wrong about this. More and more, in recent times, I find myself listening to sacred music, not because I am religious but because it unlocks something deep within – a longing for transcendence, perhaps, or what Philip Larkin, in “Church Going”, calls a hunger in oneself to be more serious. After he had a stroke, my colleague Andrew Marr, who is not a believer, found consolation through listening to Bach’s cantatas and reading religious poetry. Confronted by the “possibility of sudden death”, he had sought solace in religious art or art inspired by religion.

Why does the secular mind seek out the sacred, often at moments of heightened stress or torment? What is it we feel we are missing or, more accurately, seeking? What is this absence for which we yearn but of which we cannot speak?

For Magee, Christianity venerates death over life: it promises what is to be is greater – more fulfilling, more truthful – than what is. And yet, for the secular mind, death is the absolute end. But it’s death that ultimately gives meaning to life: definition, a telos. Through contemplating the ever-presence of death in life, although it is not an event in life – Larkin writes of the tense, musty, unignorable silence he senses while alone in an empty church – we may learn to live. Or at least to live better.

On Monday 11 November 2013, John Tavener appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s Start the Week, presented by Andrew Marr. Alongside him were John Drury, chaplain of All Souls College, Oxford, and the author of a biography of the poet-priest George Herbert, and Jeanette Winterson, the novelist who grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Lancashire. Tavener discussed his recovery from heart surgery, having spent six months in intensive care, and of his feelings of abandonment: “I couldn’t sense the idea of God any more; I couldn’t sense any music. Everything vanished.”

As his strength slowly returned so did his religious conviction and faith in his ability to compose. But the music he wrote was now more concentrated, terser, spare. His way back to God had been to write music. “Music and believing in God have always gone together,” he said. The next day he died at home in Dorset. But the music is imperishable.

[See also: Opera singer David Butt Philip on how Brexit is impacting British musicians]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland