English composer John Tavener passed away on Tuesday, November 12th at the age of 69 after battling health problems for years. When the news popped up on my Twitter feed, I was seized by a profound sense of sadness. My chest tightened instantly, my heart literally ached for a few minutes and I had to leave the room to choke back tears over the death of a stranger in another country so as not to have those I was around at the moment think I was a complete weirdo. Celebrity deaths seldom impact me to such a great extent, but there I was in a true state of mourning. As a matter of fact, this is only the third time I remember having such a profound reaction to the death of an artist; the other two being over the news of the passing of Jerry Garcia and acoustic guitar innovator Michael Hedges.
Tavener’s music entered my life completely by accident. My dad hated all of the raucous rock music I listened to and was pleading with me to get into classical music, bluegrass, jazz or just about anything else as an alternative (I got into all of those things too, but kept on with the rock music as well.) Dad signed me up for one of those “record of the month” club things and set the default genre to classical music. I liked some classical music so I figured I’d give this record club the old proverbial college try in an attempt to expand my horizons. A lot of the normal stuff showed up: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Dvorak, etc. I liked most of it just fine and at the very least I was becoming a more culturally literate person.
And then a recording of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil appeared in my mailbox.
I had never heard of John Tavener and figured the music would be complete garbage when I looked on the back and saw that (b. 1944) was next to the composer’s name instead of the normal birth year/death year combo listed. Most of the music I’d heard by living composers didn’t impress me much (though that changed over time), but I thought that I should give it a listen since 1) it was already in my house and 2) Yo-Yo Ma was the featured performer on it. I was certainly no classical music expert, but I knew Ma’s name on a project meant it was worth giving serious consideration to.
I popped the disc into the player and for the next 45 minutes or so was absolutely transported to an otherworldly realm. What was this music? It was so completely different from anything I’d ever heard. How was it so beautiful? Who was the man who created it and what had he tapped into? It had a mystical quality about it that I had only ever experienced with Indian, Chinese or Middle Eastern music, but it was firmly within the Western tradition.
Without going into a bunch of stuff nobody cares about, suffice it to say I discovered Tavener’s music at an emotionally difficult time in my life. I was at a crossroads of sorts about to finish college with a degree that
gave no real job prospects. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and was having a lot of anxiety over the future and just felt a lot of uncertainty over things in general. Tavener’s music injected a much needed dose of tranquility and contemplation in my life at a time I needed it greatly. My mind was constantly racing, but this was music that commanded you to be silent, to be still, to contemplate. That’s effusive praise for a piece of instrumental music, but it tapped into a place that made me introspective above anything else. It was (and still is) a great teacher. It’s also just there when I want to hear something beautiful.
I went on to explore Tavener’s whole catalog: from his early days of hanging out with The Beatles and writing avant-garde pieces to his later works that tapped into Hindu and Sufi sacred music as well as the bulk of his catalog that was firmly planted within his own Russian Orthodox tradition. I even wrote to him once to relay my experience of how his music helped me in a tough time. I never heard anything back, nor did I expect to given the amount of mail he purportedly received, but I’d like to think he at least read it or that someone did and relayed my gratitude. Rather than being sad about all of the music he was working on that will never come to light, I choose to be grateful for what he left the world. He was truly one of our era’s greats and will stand among the giants of Western art music as future generations look back. Thank you Mr. Tavener, for all you did…for me and the world.