I first met John Tavener, who died this week, in the late 80s, when I asked him to write a short musical piece for me. The result, rather to my surprise (but even more to my delight), was a huge work, The Protecting Veil. It was written in a burst of inspiration, and at astonishing speed, and, in the end, was commissioned for the BBC Proms and first performed there in 1989. It was in the second half of a marathon programme, which also contained the first performance of a symphony by Minna Keal, and John and I were both convinced that The Protecting Veil would be overlooked by a tired audience.
We need not have worried; the piece became an instant classic. For the next couple of years, wherever I played, people would ask me: “When are you going to record that beautiful piece by John Tavener?” Eventually, the arrangements were made, and we did record it; it leapt to the top of the classical charts.
Why did it capture people’s imaginations? I believe that it was because the beauty came from within; many people write beautiful music – but music of such intense rapture, such aching fervour, is rare indeed.
John wasn’t writing to please people – at the time he composed The Protecting Veil it was many years since he’d had a major success. He was writing the music he had to write, fired by his love of Russian Orthodox music, and his conviction of the importance of purity and simplicity. He was not a minimalist; The Protecting Veil is a deeply romantic work, even if its proportions allow for much repetition. The form is uncomplicated but satisfying; the whole work written in sections starting with each note of a descending F major scale.
Will his music last? I certainly hope so – and I believe that it will. Not every piece was an unqualified success, but there is at the core of his music a power of communication, a sense of theatre, a love of truth, that moves people deeply.