The death of Sir John Kenneth Tavener (28 January 1944 – 12 November 2013) has just come to our attention. Sir John was a composer, known for his religious works which were influenced by Russian Orthodox music and themes. Said to be ‘among the very best creative talents of his generation’, he became one of the best known composers of his age and was knighted in 2000 for his services to music. He was one of the very few Orthodox in this country to have a title.
Born in London in 1944, John was something of a musical prodigy and in 1961 he became organist and choirmaster at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Kensington, a post he held for 14 years. He first came to prominence as a composer in 1968 and fame followed. He was deeply affected by his brief 1974 marriage to a Greek dancer and then was influenced by the playwright Gerald McLarnon, who was a convert to the Orthodox Church. He himself converted to the Orthodoxy of Metropolitan Antony Bloom in 1977, soon after which we met him and formed an opinion. Thereafter he was much influenced by the philosophy of a rather tragic figure, the late Greek Orthodox Mother Thekla, who lived near Whitby in Yorkshire.
From this point on the customs of the Orthodox Church affected his work until in the early 2000s he became interested in a more universalist philosophy and sought inspiration elsewhere. Thus, in 2007 he composed ‘The Beautiful Names’, a setting of the 99 names of God in the Muslim tradition, sung in Arabic. He also explored a number of other different religious traditions, including Hinduism, and became a follower of the philosopher Frithjof Schuon. However, he did remain a Christian and was still very interested in Orthodoxy.
Called by one newspaper ‘the mystic who drives a Rolls-Royce’, Sir John’s interest in Orthodoxy was similar to that of many who remained firmly in the British Establishment and yet liked the form of Orthodoxy that was promoted among mainly wealthy Anglicans and others between the 1960s and the 1990s by various figures in certain Orthodox groups (though not in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia), both in Western Europe and North America. Thus, Sir John recognised the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, also a convert to a certain form of Orthodoxy, as ‘a kindred spirit’ and shared his philosophical and religious views.
We remember talking to Sir John on the telephone in the early 2000s about education. This made clear where he belonged in the Establishment. His generation of converts and sympathisers with Orthodoxy, like his friend Prince Charles, were bridge-figures. They did not integrate the Orthodox Church, but belonged to their own groups on the fringes of the Church and are now mostly in their 60s and 70s. Several have died in recent years and Orthodoxy in this country is now moving on, giving freedom to the next generation, after decades of blockage.
Those of my generation and younger tend to have come from no religious background and have little attachment to the dying Establishment. The future of English-language Orthodoxy in this country is not with converts from the heterodox world, who often confuse and merge Heterodoxy with Orthodoxy. It is with the younger and more culturally open, who have Orthodox roots but use English as their first language, or else with the 95% of the local population who come from no religious background at all and are free of cultural baggage.
To the servant of God John, Eternal Memory!