Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener : Deceptive Cadence British composer Sir John Tavener — whose music was beloved by many far outside the usual classical sphere — died Tuesday at age 69. We look back at a career that took him from being signed by The Beatles' Apple label to a performance of his music as part of Princess Diana's funeral.
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Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener

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Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener

Remembering 'Holy Minimalist' Composer John Tavener

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We take a moment now to remember choral composer John Tavener. He died today at his home in England. Tavener began his career as a teen church organist. He made his first recording with the help of The Beatles, and he reached his widest audience when his music was played at the funeral of Princess Diana. Tavener suffered from a genetic disorder that gave him heart problems most of his life. He was 69 years old. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this appreciation.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: From the very beginning of his professional career, Tavener made music that had wide appeal. He made his first record when he was 22 for The Beatles' Apple label.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE WHALE")

TSIOULCAS: He converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity in 1977, and music became more a vehicle for spiritual expression than an end unto itself, as he told NPR in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JOHN TAVENER: We seem to have lost our contact with the primordial, the idea of, call it divine revelation, as opposed to something that's learned by the human intellect, something that if you lay yourself completely open and you just open your heart completely, something will actually come into it.

TSIOULCAS: In 1993, he wrote "Song for Athene" to commemorate the death of a young friend. The text was written by Mother Thekla, a Russian Orthodox Abbess who was also Tavener's longtime spiritual adviser. Four years later, "Song for Athene" was used in Princess Diana's funeral and it gave Tavener's work a global audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONG FOR ATHENE")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

TSIOULCAS: In 1999, Tavener wrote a piece for a vocal quartet and string quartet called "The Bridegroom." The vocal group was Anonymous 4. Singer Susan Hellauer recalls meeting Tavener during rehearsals when he didn't behave at all like a typical composer. His guidance for the group was more emotional than technical.

SUSAN HELLAUER: It's a very emotional, spiritual experience for him, not just a musical transaction. It's much more than that. He made that very clear.

TSIOULCAS: Hellauer says Tavener's music may sound simple but its long lines and sustained notes make it hard to sing.

HELLAUER: It actually floats. It sort of appears out of nowhere and then it floats back into nowhere. It doesn't have that kind of Western structure of themes and developments. It just is and then it's gone. And very well crafted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BRIDEGROOM")

TSIOULCAS: As time went on, Tavener's own scope expanded beyond Orthodox Christianity to encompass a wider spiritual and artistic journey that drew upon Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Native American sources. As a result, he was often lumped in with the New Aegean infatuation with chant. But he hoped his music was more than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TAVENER: I remember the director of Decca recordings said to me - I asked him, what do you feel about young people buying records of chant and all the rest of it? And he said, well, I think, you know, they just like to relax, enjoy it. I don't think that's true. I have a sense of hope about the way in which the new generation is going. I don't think they have the cynicism of my generation.

TSIOULCAS: John Tavener once said there are plenty of artists who can show the way to hell. He wanted music to lead us instead to paradise. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BRIDEGROOM")

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