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Pulled punches

22 November 2013

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"LIFE is a creeping tragedy; so we must be cheerful." It is an unexpected epigram for the late Sir John Tavener to remember - not least because his own music communicated an unforced composure and optimism based on spiritual confidence.

Elsewhere in his last interview - broadcast on Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday of last week) - he stated that all great music ultimately expressed hope; and although you might disagree with this presumption, you cannot argue with the sincerity of the sentiment, coming from a man aware throughout his life of his physical frailty.

The gathering to which Tavener was invited was notionally intended as a discussion of the poetry of George Herbert; the other guests in Andrew Marr's studio being John Drury, and Jeanette Winterson, a writer who, like Tavener, had grown up with a fatalistic Protestantism ringing in her ears.

You might therefore have expected more of the "firing off in all directions" that Marr promised at the outset. But few of the provocative lines thrown out by Tavener and Winterson were put to any polemic service. So, when Tavener entered into a short riff on "the eternal feminine" in art, I waited for some kind of rise from Winterson; but the latter let it pass with some anodyne reference to Tracey Emin. Nor did Tavener have the energy or inclination to defend his assertion that the Church is no longer a wise patron of the arts, as it had been in the Renaissance.

These were the sorts of comments which, in the past, could provoke even the most sanguine of interlocutors; but since his last health scare, in which Tavener was in intensive care for six months, there appeared to have been a détente in the relationship between the composer and a musical establishment that regarded his brand of sacred minimalism as facile and retrogressive.

I was struck by the insightful obituary that Tavener gave some months ago to Elliott Carter, the American composer whose attitude towards musical form and function were so at odds with his own. And it is worth remembering, as John Rutter did on In Tune (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week), that Tavener was an accomplished pianist who, had he not pursued a compositional career, might well have made it as an international soloist.

The temptation is to read some kind of historical purpose into the fact that Tavener should die just before the climax of the Britten anniversary celebrations. But the influence of the older on the younger master, if it existed, is not obvious. The sound-worlds of the two are different; one suffused in the chant of the Orthodox Church, the other - as Yehudi Menuhin put it - sounding like the convergence of wind and water.

In Britten's Footsteps (Radio 4, Friday) explored this sound world with the help of Chris Watson, a wildlife sound-recordist commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival to compile an aural account of Britten's walks around Suffolk. I am not sure I heard much Britten in the sounds of reeds or the dawn chorus; but then again the wonder of Britten's invention lies way beyond the act of mere appropriation from nature.

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