John Taverner says his music comes from above – ‘I see myself as a conduit’ – and reveals the secret of the ‘Jesus imagination’. He talks to Nigel Farndale
If you didn’t know what Sir John Tavener did for a living, you could guess from his long hair, domed forehead and unworldly air that he was a composer.
“I do stand out,” he says in a gentle, croaky voice. “I am tall and thin and very bony, but I suppose it is the hair. I got a lot of bullying at Highgate [school] until they realised I was a talented pianist. After that I grew my hair long and cultivated what I thought was the look of a pianist, as a form of self-preservation.”
He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and his first break came in 1968, when his father, who owned a Hampstead building firm, did some work for John Lennon. He introduced his son. The two musicians, both in their twenties, hit it off and spent the evening sitting on the floor, eating macrobiotic food and playing tapes of Tavener’s orchestral music.
The next day Lennon telephoned to say he wanted to sign Tavener to the Beatles’ Apple label. Though Tavener continued to compose, it was not until 20 years later, in 1989, when The Protecting Veil, his haunting concerto for solo cello and strings, had its premiere at the Proms, that Tavener could claim a wider renown.
The concerto became one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time – Tavener attributes its appeal to its femininity and tenderness – and, along with his Song for Athene, sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, it is probably the work for which he is still best known.
Until recently his work was strongly influenced by the Greek Orthodox Church – sustained chords, sinuous chants and spiritual themes. He has a house in Greece, and at his home in Dorset there are Orthodox icons around the fireplace. But now he has, he says, moved towards a “universalist view”, in which all religions are equally valid.
He has also pared down his music. Critics, who tend to like complexity, have accused him of attracting audiences by over-simplification. But this is, surely, to miss his point. Tavener strips away the complexity to get to what he calls the “essence”. A good example of this is The Veil of the Temple, a seven-hour vigil that had its first performance at the Temple Church in London last year, which will be performed in a shortened, three-hour version next week.
“I didn’t sit down and recompose it,” he says, “but tried to reflect something of its gradual ascent, starting with hardly any sound whatsoever.”
We are talking in his house in Dorset. Outside there is a willow tree and, beyond that, a medieval church tower. Woodpigeons can be heard, and cockerels. It seems a pastoral idyll, in other words. He composes on long walks here, without a notebook, and does not worry that he might have forgotten his composition by the time he gets home.
“Increasingly, I understand Blake who referred to the ‘Jesus imagination’,” he says. “The imagination is a divine thing and is not capable, in its true, pure sense, of having a profane idea. These ideas that come like that put me in a state of semi-ecstasy and leave me feeling revitalised.
“There is no way I can forget them because they seem to emerge from deep down in the subconscious. I can’t get an idea out of my head because it’s part of me, in a way. Sometimes I have the sensation that I’ve known it already. Like deja vu. Not that it was another piece of music, but that one has known it before. I think Yeats experienced something similar in writing poetry.”
Sir John refers more than once in our conversation to “the angel of inspiration” and talks of having “auditory visions” in which music is dictated to him.
“That’s how it seems to me. Maybe I’m crackers. That’s possible. I see myself as a conduit. It has to be effortless. Effort for me means existential angst and ego and I don’t want any of that in the music. Music must be about transcending the ego rather than being imprisoned by it.
“Once you start seeing the ego of Beethoven, his music can seem self-conscious, particularly in the late quartets. But then you look at the late Bagatelles and there he seems to . . ,” he trails off, ” . . . he gives up the effort and it is sublime.”
He stands up, glides towards his grand piano, lays his elongated fingers on the keys and plays, most affectingly, Beethoven’s delicate B flat Bagatelle. “There, Beethoven doesn’t do anything with it. Perhaps he was too tired to make it effortful.”
Sir John can, he says, explain Bach and Beethoven, but not Mozart. “Mozart is inexplicable. Everything in his music is ecstatic. If you just change the position of a single chord, the whole thing falls to pieces. It’s so perfectly poised. That’s why it moves me. And if music doesn’t move one, if it doesn’t inwardly reduce you to your knees, what’s the point of it?”
Inspiration in his terms may be divine and revelatory, but what, for him, is the distinction between a religious experience and an aesthetic one?
“You almost have to become childlike in relation to a religious experience. I never have doubts when I’m writing music. I may well have quite strong atheist thoughts the rest of the time but that is perhaps irrelevant because when I’m actually composing I have my proof. I have a certitude.”
Sir John is 60 and lucky to be alive. At 30 he had a stroke, followed later by heart surgery to correct a leaking valve, an effect of the Marfan syndrome (a condition affecting the body’s connective tissue and found in unusually tall people) he has had since birth. He has also suffered in recent years from temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition associated with out-of-body experiences and quasi-religious visions.
Does he ever wonder whether his angel of inspiration might be a trick of biology?
“My neurologist kept asking me after my first attack, ‘Has your music changed?’ and I said, ‘In a way it has, yes, it has become more contemplative.’ He told me about the conversion of St Paul, that they knew in some form that he had epilepsy. But, my neurologist said, this in no way discredits the authenticity of the experience of a vision – indeed medical conditions can actually bring about this spiritual state.”
So if his music is divinely inspired, what is he, as a composer, adding to it?
“Well, when I return from my walks, my ideas get noted down on different pieces of manuscript – probably in the end there are a hundred little jottings and scribblings strewn all over the room. That’s where the medieval concept of composer as craftsman comes in.
“The ideas that come from that other place, wherever it is, may seem chaotic, but they are not. That’s what’s really mysterious. I look at all these sketches and scribbles and see there is a connection between all of them. That is the stage at which I wrestle as a craftsman with the mathematics of the composition, the form and structure. But that’s a wonderful wrestling, there’s no angst involved, no ego.”
Does he worry that one day the angel will stop visiting him?
“Yes. As I draw near to the end of a piece of music, I have an almost obsessive desire to start another one, just in case. Nowadays I have faith that it will happen, but even if there are two hours when there is music not actually coming to me, then that bothers me. It’s very difficult for me to relax in that sense, because I’ve always said that writing for me is prayer, it’s my umbilical cord, my reason for existing.”
He offers me a bowl of raspberries. “Picked this morning. I’m not much of a gardener, but it’s nice to wander around.” He’s not practical around the house, he adds, “pretty hopeless really. Although I am capable of cooking when left on my own.”
He’s not particularly materialistic, he thinks. Although paradoxically he does have a love of expensive cars, a passion he shares with his friend the Prince of Wales.
“Yes, I’ve always had that. If I want to relax coming back from London by train, I buy Auto Trader and I scour it for cars I might buy. I do love them. I don’t know why.”
He has always had muses, he says. His first, in a sense, was his mother who died in 1985. She dominated him to such an extent that when, in the 1970s, he married a Greek dancer he wouldn’t leave the parental home to live with her. The marriage was annulled after eight months on the grounds of non-consummation.
Did his mother, I ask, feel guilty about that?
“Yes, it was all sort of tacky, that. She didn’t really want me to marry her, that’s the truth. It was consummated, though. I think it probably was a case of my mother telling me: ‘You should say that it was never consummated, dear. Just say that to get the annulment.’ ”
Other “muses” include the Indian soprano Patricia Rozario and Bjork whose “primordial” voice Tavener adores. But his longest partnership was with his some-time librettist Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun. He would ring her at two in the morning and ask her to interpret points of metaphysics for him.
“She didn’t mind the late-night calls. I think she rather enjoyed them. We had a sort of fall-out for a while but now we are back communicating by letter. I feel that I’m much more my own person now and I follow my own vision and I feel this has helped my music.”
The three most important females in his life these days are his wife, Maryanna, 39, and their two daughters, 11 and nine. “The girls do play music,” he says. “In term-time they begin practising at seven o’clock in the morning. There’s quite a cacophony going on, one is playing a flute in one room, the other is playing a cello in another room.”
Doesn’t that offend his musical sensibilities?
“It doesn’t seem to bother me too much. I can bear any human activity when I’m composing.” He frowns for a moment. “Except drills.”