Sir John Tavener, 1944-2013: an appreciation

Sir John Tavener, who died last week, wrote the sort of choral pieces that all composers wish they'd written

Sir John Tavener was one of those rare composers whose music is accessible to people from all walks of life. His work A New Beginning, hailing the new millennium at what is now the O2 in London, reflected the strength of Britain's choral culture. After the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, choir singers from all over the world hurried to find copies of Song for Athene, which was sung at that service, so that they too could enter that ethereal, comforting, deeply personal and uniquely imagined sound world.

His beautiful choral setting of William Blake's The Lamb, with its combination of mirrored lines and simple harmonic writing has graced most churches, cathedrals and concert halls throughout the land, and most recently our television sets when used to great effect in a telephone company commercial. It is the kind of piece that every composer wishes he might have written.

His choral music undoubtedly hit a collective nerve at the time when people became drawn into the world of plainchant, along with the music of his contemporaries Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. The deep spirituality that is so evident in his music has inspired sounds that even today many composers strive to emulate. He could make the simplest common chord ring in a way that no other was able, either in a soft way, as in his work Funeral Ikos, or in a brilliant way, as in the wonderful Magnificat that he wrote for the choir of King's College, Cambridge.

I have two particular memories of Sir John. As a young singer in London in the late 1970s I sang in his work Ultimos Ritos and we all looked in amazement at this tall, charismatic, suntanned man with flowing blond hair, dressed in a white suit who made occasional comments during the rehearsals in a quiet and rather self-effacing way. A few days after the performance, much to my amazement, I saw him step out of his blue Rolls-Royce in the street in Holland Park, west London, where I lived at the time and walk into a house two away from ours. I discovered later that the house was a meeting place for members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 2010 I conducted the BBC Singers in a new piece he had written, again a setting of William Blake, this time A Cradle Song and it was broadcast on Christmas Eve that year. It was very special for us that he came to the recording in St Paul's, Knightsbridge along with his wife and young son, and he gave us his approval with gentleness and grace.

Bob Chilcott is a choral composer and a conductor of the BBC Singers

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Bob Chilcott

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