Roxanna Panufnik: how I made Tavener's 99 Words sing

John Tavener was an inspiration, a mentor and a friend for many years. Setting his profoundly moving 99 Words to music was a final privilege

December, 1997: a Christmas celebration in a darkened Westminster Cathedral packed with hundreds of hushed people holding candles. And Sir John Tavener’s sublime Hymn to the Mother of God, with its overlapping harmonic waves, washing over us from the Lady Chapel – this indelibly imprinted musical experience was formative to me as a listener and composer.

Most people will have heard John’s music outside the concert hall – most famously his Song for Athene at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral, or on film soundtracks or even on a 2002 ad for phone company Orange. His music is direct in its message: beautific simplicity, performed – by many of the world’s greatest musicians – with passionate intensity. Through his gradually building harmonies and structures, you can hear the sense of awe one imagines he drew from his deep and universal faith, which was inspired by the metaphysical, eastern Christianity and texts from a diverse range of religions.

On a beautiful crisp sunny February day in 1999, I found myself driving down to his house in Sussex for a BBC Music Magazine photoshoot. The magazine was doing a special Faces of British Music feature with 35 top British composers, and I was to be photographed alongside Sir John Tavener. I felt deeply honoured (and rather surprised) to be included in this, as I was very much only a one-hit wonder then, thanks to the success of my Westminster Mass the previous year. I was incredibly nervous about meeting one of my lifelong musical heroes. What could this young whippersnapper possibly have to say of any import or interest to such a profound and widely admired musical genius?

But John and his wife, Maryanna, could not have made me feel more welcome. He reminded me in many respects of my own composer father – a deeply serious and profound public face under which lurked a fabulously wicked sense of humour. His daughters Theodora and Sofia, then quite small, brought in their toy mannequin head to show me the hairstyles they’d been practising on it. We talked – about everything under the sun, and every subsequent time we met, we took up where we left off.

June, 2014. The sun was streaming through the giant multicoloured windows of Westminster Abbey that was packed with 1,300 of John’s friends, family, colleagues and admirers, remembering him in music and words seven months after he had died of heart complications. Theodora, now grown up, climbed up to the pulpit and bravely but beautifully recited her father’s 99 Words to My Darling Children – his mantra for how he would like them to live their lives. John had written the words at the behest of Liz Grey, who a few years previously had compiled a book in which poets, politicians, world leaders, artists, writers and musicians had answered same simple question: “You have breath for no more than 99 words. What would they be?”

Sir John wrote:

What we know is ringed with darkness; God, however, sees it as light. Find the courage to trust this Reality; remember God every day. Strive to embrace all creations. If we are with God when all is well, He will be with us when life wounds. Seek what exalts you, and live ‘à tout risque’. Life is a dream, but it is not our dream. All that happens to you is sent from God. Aspire to that state of bliss which inhabits all things. For ‘God is a beautiful being, and He loves beauty.’ Your true Self is God.

As well as being a deeply inspiring vision for his children’s future, there seemed to be so many parallels with my own personal history. Like Theodora, I had lost a composer father whose musical legacy is sometimes comforting but can also feel incredibly raw. Like Sir John and Maryanna, I too have three children – two older girls and a younger boy. And these words sum up everything that I would wish upon my own children.

My reaction on hearing the reading that day was the desire to set them to music, but I was reluctant to write to Maryanna for permission so soon after she and the children had lost him. I was on the verge of dismissing the idea as crazy (and maybe a little egotistical) when a message came from conductor Suzi Digby, saying that she’d like to commission a choral setting of Tavener’s 99 Words. What did I think?

John Tavener photographed at his home in 2004.
John Tavener photographed at his home in 2004. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Independent/REX

I took that as a serendipitous sign that I should and could approach Maryanna, and I am eternally grateful that she and the children granted me permission to set these very precious words.

The music I’ve written rocks gently, like a lullaby. I imagine John saying them as he tucks his small children in to bed, at night. Indeed, the words are so important that I’ve made sure every one one of them is heard by having them first narrated and then sung. There is a respectful nod to John’s famous Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra – the opening of my piece is a solo cello playing in its highest range. This instrument represents John – supporting, encouraging and embellishing the words narrated by Simon Russell Beale, who knew John and had interviewed him for a BBC documentary, on the CD and sung by Voce Chamber Choir.

And on 24 November, we heard Theodora Tavener recite those words again – this time accompanied by my music. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to the Tavener Foundation, which provides access to John’s and other classical music to those who might not have the opportunity to hear it otherwise. It will also promote harmony, musical and otherwise, between faiths. A timeless and universal message that we need now more than ever – and one I know John’s music will continue to transmit via musicians the world over.

99 Words by Sir John Tavener and Roxanna Panufnik is available now.

Roxanna Panufnik

The GuardianTramp

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