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Tavener’s music: direct to the soul

22 November 2013

THE spiritual music of Sir John Tavener, who died last week, challenges not only our materialistic culture, but also our familiar theology. Tavener's conversion to Orthodoxy led to his exploration of ancient Christianity and the origins of Christian liturgical music in the tones and chants of the East.

He rejected the music of his peers, including much of the church music, which he found empty and superficial. He would surely have appreciated Olivier Clément's remark: "Christianity is in the first place an Oriental religion and it is a mystical religion."

To the listener, Tavener's music has a luminous quality, as though he were constantly striving to reflect the stillness of an icon in sound. From a Western viewpoint, this is an extraordinary thing to do. Our musical tradition in general expects music to develop as it goes along; to state a theme, to explore it, contradict it, vary it, move it on, and finally resolve it. As a listener, you are on a journey.

Think of Bach's St Matthew Passion, with the inevitability of the Passion story anticipated in the relentless forward movement of the opening chorus. By the time you get to the wonderful resolution of the final chorus, you have been on an emotionally wrenching pilgrimage, from which you finally arrive at peace.

This narrative tendency is also found in our classical orchestral and chamber music, which is, of course, written in "movements". Western music is not only in time, but moves through time, telling a story. The theologian Jeremy Begbie has written profoundly about this, seeing in Western music a reflection of a biblical view of history. The gospel calls us to enter a narrative of change. We are not the same people at the end of the story as we were at the beginning.

But Tavener's concern is different. The Western music that he most admired was that of the polyphonic composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. They spoke to him of the otherness of the divine. The peace of God is not a place that we arrive at, but the eternal surround of our time-bound world. The eternal is now because the peace of God is always present - it is we who are not always there.

Listen to Tavener's Song for Athene or The Lamb, and what is striking is their simplicity and accessibility. When so much contemporary church music is either banal or unapproachable, Tavener seems to speak directly to the Western soul. Those concerned that worship be missional should take note.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

John Tavener Obituary

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