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