Obituary: John Tavener, Composer
Just before his death, the maverick composer, who played at Princess Di's funeral, told Ivan Hewett how he had previously cheated death many times
'YOU know, my consultant keeps telling me sudden death could come at any moment," says John Tavener with a sudden, mischievous laugh. It's a surprise because until that moment he'd seemed a picture of crumpled fragility, voice almost inaudible, his long mottled hands curled in his lap.
Tavener can afford to laugh, having cheated death so many times. The heart troubles that first appeared in the Seventies, when he was leaving behind his 'flower-power' phase and discovering his attraction towards Orthodox Christianity, have plagued him ever since.
By the time he'd became famous in the Eighties and Nineties, with his anthem The Lamb, and Song for Athene – later played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales – he already had the fragile, gaunt look of a long-haired seer, albeit one in elegant white suits and long scarves.
Then, six years ago, he had his most serious brush with mortality yet.
"I was having these terrible back pains," he says, "and then one day in Switzerland things got very bad. My wife, Maryanna called the hotel doctor, but I don't remember any of this, I was out of it. I had an operation, and I was nearly lost. I lay there for weeks, and the first sign of life I showed was when Maryanna played Mozart to me, and I did this," he says, waving a long spindly arm in a gesture of conducting.
But that wasn't the end of it. Four more cardiac arrests followed, and then months of recuperation. But slowly, with the help of the devoted Maryanna, he started to pull through, drawing spiritual sustenance from a surprising source.
"I discovered the late quartets of Beethoven. I never liked them much before, they seemed forced. But now I could see how they arose out of the transcendence of such huge personal suffering. They're such wonderful pieces, somehow beyond any style. They could have been written at any time."
Many people have taken comfort from Beethoven's late quartets at a time of adversity. But to hear this sentiment from Tavener is a surprise. Twenty years ago he became notorious for saying Western music had gone off the rails since it left the purity of chant, and started to become a vehicle for personal feelings.
Now he feels differently. "I've got great joy from rediscovering Western music," he says. "I love Schumann and Chopin, and those amazing symphonies of Bruckner." But he draws the line at Mahler – "so vulgar! And it's always about him."
Not only is Tavener, 69, listening to Western music, he's incorporating it in his own.
"A lot of my recent pieces weave in homages to other composers – Victoria, Stravinsky, Bruckner, even Stockhausen." Isn't Stockhausen part of that awful modernism that Tavener has rejected, in his search for ancient truths? "But Stockhausen was a searcher after truth, too. I know there are inane things in his music, but in his later works he was really on to something."
Tavener's thoughts are returning home in other ways too. "I've been thinking about the Presbyterian minister who had guided me as a youth," he says. "I remember he was a man who struggled with doubt, and that impressed me. He used to quote an old Zen Buddhist line to me: 'Life is a creeping tragedy. That is why you must be cheerful'."
One feels, as Tavener reconciles himself to his mortality, an acceptance of things he's always rejected: the value of doubt, the dark side of life, and his own cultural roots. All those things are evident in the first work he wrote after he emerged from his convalescence. "I was living between the bed and the sofa," he says, "and Maryanna put lots of different poetry in my hands.
"One of them was Shakespeare's Sonnets, which I had never really engaged with before. Really, they're like little exercises in composing, very simple. I had to remember what it was like to compose, I had been out of music for so long. I chose three sonnets. The first I think of as a sort of love song to Maryanna, the second two are much darker."
They were to be performed in Southwark Cathedral by the South Iceland Chamber Choir. Since then he's moved on to Tolstoy and Dante. "I'm writing a piece for Strasbourg Cathedral based on Dante's wonderful verse, and another one for Vienna Cathedral."
And there's an opera about Krishna waiting to be written. It's an impressive workload for an invalid.
"Yes, but I'm in no hurry," he says, again with that laugh. "I can only work slowly, and I may not finish these works, but I can look back over a body of work and say I'm not ashamed of it. That's a good feeling."
This interview with John Tavener, who died on November 12, took place on November 1. Tavener's 'Three Shakespeare Sonnets' were performed last week at Southwark Cathedral.