Sir John Tavener working at home in Dorset
Sir John Tavener
John Tavener became one of the London Bach Society’s Honorary Patrons at the time of our Golden Jubilee when he opened the 1996 Bachfest series. Therefore it was with considerable sadness that we learned of his death on 12 November 2013 at the age of 69. In reality we were lucky that he was among us for this long, for he suffered ill health for most of his life , something he bore with great stoicism, refusing to let it dim his creative spirit right to the very end.
When someone of John’s eminence and musical importance passes away, all who knew him will have their own treasured memories to recall; many pages will be written and tributes rightly and generously made. To these we add ours as we have had the privilege and pleasure of knowing John Tavener from the very beginning of his composing career; his Father and Aunt were both LBS members for some years too.
As the detailed Obituary in the Daily Telegraph rightly states, John’s first professional performance was given by Paul Steinitz and the London Bach Society choir on 20 July 1964 in the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, West Smithfield. It came about in a familiar fashion. John came to one of our concerts in the early 1960s (having attended our UK première of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum in 1956 when he was 12 years old) armed with a score to interest Paul in giving a performance of his latest creation. Paul read it through, was excited by it and immediately programmed the first performance; the work John’s Three Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He was just 20 years old. One of our original choir members now an LBS Bach Friend recalls the rehearsals “I recall that my first impression of “The Three Holy Sonnets” was that it was a rather aggressive work. Then JohnTavener came to a rehearsal. He entered the room. A giant of a man with long flowing locks. He sat on a table with his feet on a chair and illustrated what he was seeking from us. It was quite gentle, calm. So very different to my first impression of the piece.”
Thus began Paul’s friendship and musical collaboration with one of the finest ever composers of our age, a siginficant musical figure, someone who could divide opinion as well as unite it, surprise the listener..certainly..even horrify perhaps. One is never indifferent to a Tavener work!
“Bach Society strikes gold” The Times, March 1968
As part of a series to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the choir, we commissioned his magnificent “Introit for the Feast of St. John Damascene” in 1968. The work takes its inspiration from the overwhelming opening few bars of Bach’s Mass in B minor and John provided an overwhelming piece to match! It requires (among other resources) a high soprano and high horn, the choir to stamp and (if I remember rightly) to shout as Tavener’s treatment of Bach’s music is revealed…that is until the last page when we hear JSB’s original..not sung by the choir but played quietly by the orchestra…a typical piece of Tavener invention and a homage no doubt. After the performance in London’s new Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Feast Day itself 27 March 1968, the Times headlined “Bach Society strikes gold”. We gave a further performance in the QEH in November 1976. Both enjoyed John’s unique participation and his presence at rehearsals.
As Tavener’s career continued to develop, we continued to present his music throughout the 70s (navigate to LBS Commissions & New Work) and at our 60th anniversary celebration in 2007 I invited the Choir of Clare College Chapel Cambridge to perform his beautiful and moving anthem “The Lamb” in the church where Paul’s friendship and collaboration with John Tavener began – The Priory Church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great. At the time John was in intensive care, having suffered a heart attack.
What musical treasures John has given us all ! Like countless others, we are privileged to have known him and worked with him. There will now be an added dimension to the Tavener 70th birthday concerts already planned for worldwide no doubt for 2014.
RIP and thank you dear friend. We think of Maryanna, Theodora, Sofia and Orlando today. The Greek Orthodox Funeral Service took place on Thursday 28 November in Winchester Cathedral. A truly memorable Tavener occasion and a very fitting tribute.