John Tavener, acclaimed British composer - The Buffalo News

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John Tavener, acclaimed British composer

Jan. 28, 1944 – Nov. 12, 2013

LONDON (AP) – British composer John Tavener, whose career was boosted with the help of The Beatles and who often is remembered for the elegiac song performed as Princess Diana’s coffin was carried out of Westminster Abbey, died Tuesday. He was 69.

Tavener’s publisher, Chester Music, said he died at his home in Child Okeford, southern England.

Born and trained in London, Tavener composed the beautiful “Song for Athene” – reworked as “Songs of Angels” – that caught the public’s mood at Diana’s funeral.

His wistful, elegant setting of William Blake’s poem “The Lamb” (1982) became a staple of Christmas carol services.

“I think there are an awful lot of artists around who are very good at leading us into hell,” Tavener once said. “I would rather someone would show me the way to paradise.”

An imposing figure, Tavener was strikingly tall – 6 feet, 6 inches – thin, and wore his hair long.

James Rushton, managing director of Chester Music, called Tavener “one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years.”

Tavener’s music was distinguished by quiet passages that seemed to shimmer like dawn light, and by its other-worldly intensity and moments of ecstasy.

He spoke of some compositions arriving instantaneously in his mind.

“If one is going to create this eternal, celestial music, one has got to listen, to be silent, to hear the angel of inspiration dictate,” he said in his 60th year.

His 1968 cantata “The Whale” brought him fame with the help of The Beatles, who released it on their Apple records label.

Tavener said he caught the attention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at a party by playing a tape of his opera, “Notre Dames des Fleurs,” inspired by Jean Genet’s novel about a prisoner’s sexual fantasies.

The opera – which was later lost – featured obscene lyrics, a choir and what Tavener called his “thunderous” performance on the organ.

Lennon offered a recording deal the next day, Tavener said, but it needed another Beatle to get “The Whale” to market.

“It took Ringo, who is a lot more pragmatic than John,” Tavener said in a BBC interview. “Ringo actually brought out ‘The Whale’ and ‘Celtic Requiem.’ ”

Tavener’s later, better-known works flowed from his conversion to Orthodox Christianity and his collaboration with Mother Thekla, a Russian emigre and Orthodox nun to whom he turned for support after his mother died in 1985.

Thekla’s short “The Life of St. Mary of Egypt” inspired his 1992 opera, “Mary of Egypt,” and she provided many of the librettos for other works.

Tavener ranged widely in geography and spirituality in his pursuit of what he described as innocence. “The Veil of the Temple” (2002), a seven-hour work to be performed overnight, was an attempt “to remove the veils that hide the same basic truth of all authentic religions.”

Tavener, whose work was championed by Prince Charles, received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for services to music.

“He was an extraordinary British composer whose music will stand for some time,” said Daniel Jaffe, reviews editor at the BBC Music magazine.

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