I first encountered John Tavener’s music in 1992, when a hugely successful recording of The Protecting Veil seemed to fill the public’s need for religiously inspired, slow-moving pieces (at the time, Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony was also shifting units to an unprecedented degree). He began his composing career as something of an enfant terrible (but then so have many others): The Whale, written in 1966, premiered two years later to considerable acclaim for a work largely based on an encyclopedia entry that includes a totally improvised section and non-musical choral sounds. The Beatles issued a recording on Apple that even featured a spoken part by Ringo Starr. Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and their teachings influenced his subsequent work.
His career was not without its speed-bumps, however: Thérèse (1979) disappointed Covent Garden opera-goers and the Akhmatova Requiem was a failure at its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 and caused walkouts during its debut at the Proms. Nevertheless, The Lamb (1982) has outlasted such over-ambitious works, and Song For Athene (1993) gained worldwide exposure when performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. He suffered poor health for many years, including a stroke and two heart attacks, and his death last month at the age of 69 followed years of frailty. One of the products of his later years, Ex Maria Virgine (2005) came at a time when he was exploring other religions in addition to Christianity, as he felt that the Orthodox tonal system restricted him. It is a series of settings of what have become part of the traditional canon of Christmas carols, but to music that enlivens and refreshes the sentiments: for example, the stern warning Remember O Thou Man takes on a more comforting aspect in Tavener’s hands. The work was composed in celebration of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and the feeling one gets while listening to it is that engendered by the body of Tavener’s work: as if it has been around and part of our lives for all time. Buy or download the excellently-packaged CD from Naxos.
Tavener, Ex Maria Virgine