updated 11 September 2023
© Simone Canetty-Clarke

Sir John Tavener

British composer and organist born 28 January 1944 in London, died 12 November 2013 in Child Okeford, UK.

John Tavener began composing in 1957 at Highgate School in London, where he also played piano and sang in the school’s choir. In 1961, he became choirmaster and organist at St. John’s Presbyterian Church. The following year, he joined the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with the Australian composer David Lumsdaine, who introduced him to avant-garde European music. Tavener retained little from this music, believing it to be pompous. This did not, however, stop him from borrowing compositional techniques from serialism in pieces such as The Lamb (1982). This brought Tavener closer to the work of Arvo Pärt. These composers are often associated with the post-modernist movement.

Tavener met public success at twenty-three years old with his piece The Whale (1967), debuted during London Sinfonietta’s inaugural concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in January 1968. This piece mixes recited descriptions of the whale from the Collins Encyclopedia with improvisation and collages of cartoons. After being passed along to Ringo Starr, it was published by Apple Records, the Beatles’ label.

As Tavener’s spirituality went through several stages of evolution over the course of his life, almost all of his music is religious and vocal. At the beginning of the 1970s, his work was influenced by the poetry of Saint John of the Cross and its theme of transcendental love, apparent in pieces such as Últimos Ritos (Last Rights, 1969-72), Nomine Jesu, and Coplas (1970). Through his education, he became interested in Roman Catholicism.

At the request of Benjamin Britten, Covent Garden commissioned an opera from Tavener. For this, he chose to write about Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse (1973) was a critical failure and led to a profound spiritual and musical crisis, coinciding with the collapse of his marriage. His conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 signaled the end of his spiritual crisis, as he immersed himself in the Orthodox ecclesiastical music tradition and used it as inspiration for his new works, such as Kyklike Kinesis and Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1977). In 1979, at thirty-five years old, a stroke marked the beginning of Tavener’s health problems and chronic pain. These issues remained with him for the rest of his life and were clearly visible in his work through the strong presence of themes of consolation and beauty in death. In 1990, he was diagnosed with the rare Marfan syndrome.

His spiritual exploration continued over the course of the next decade. Inspired by the Reverend Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s short book The Life of St. Mary of Egypt (1974), Tavener contacted the author, with whom he formed a fruitful relationship over two decades. She acted as his personal theologian and spiritual advisor, particularly after his mother’s death. She also helped him return to writing, a period during which he composed The Protecting Veil (1988) and wrote libretti for several of his pieces, among which are his second opera, Mary of Egypt (1992), and his best-known work, Song for Athene, which mixes texts from Orthodox funerary liturgy with passages from Hamlet. Song for Athene was played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

In 2000, the Southbank Centre in London dedicated a three-week festival to Tavener entitled Ikons of Light. He then became interested in other religions, as well as perennialism, a philosophical and spiritual perspective that considers that all religious traditions share one truth or a single metaphysical origin — on this point, he often referred to Karlheinz Stockhausen. During this period, Tavener wrote Lament for Jerusalem (2002), a mystical love song inspired by the traditions of Abrahamic religions, Shunya (2003), inspired by Buddhism, and The Beautiful Names (2004), about certain Koranic verses, all while studying Sufi poets. This religious universalism was counter to the divisive atmosphere of the beginning of the twenty-first century and provoked a polemical reception.

Despite serious heart problems in 2007, Tavener continued to compose pieces filled with the perspective of his own death, such as Towards Silence (2007). He died on 12 November 2013.

Awards and Distinctions

  • Ivor Novello Classical Music Award, 2005
  • Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, 2003
  • Chevalier of the New Year Honours list for services to music, 2000
  • Prix international Rainier de Monaco for Cain and Abel (1965)

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2023


Wise Music Classical, L’éducation musicale, blog d’Oxford University Press

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en juillet 2023).


  • Boris ALVARADO, Ricardo ESPINOZA LOLAS, Patricio LANDAETA MARDONES, « Música y sensación sonora: John Tavener », Hispania Sacra, juil-déc. 2014, Vol. 66 Issue 134, p. 767-784.
  • Jean BIÈS, John Tavener l’enchanteur : une introduction à la musique du silence, Paris, les Deux océans, 2008.
  • June BOYCE-TILLMAN, Anne-Marie FORBES (éd.), Heart’s Ease. Spirituality in the Music of John Tavener, Bristol, Peter Lang, 2020.
  • Piers DUDGEON, Lifting the Veil: The Biography of Sir John Tavener, Londres, Portrait, 2003.
  • Emma GREENSTEIN, « Sir John Tavener, saintly and controversial composer », publié sur Oxford University Press’s blog, 17 décembre 2013, à lire en ligne (lien vérifié en février 2023).
  • Geoffrey HAYDON, John Tavener: glimpses of paradise, Londres, Victor Gollancz, 1995.
  • Gregory M. PYSH « Icon in sound: an interview with Sir John Tavener », The Choral Journal, Vol. 54, No. 10 (mai 2014), p. 18-23.
  • Jennifer SNODGRASS, « The Theosis of John Tavener: Dualities and Icons in The Tyger and The Lamb », Sacred Music, Winter 2008, Vol. 135 Issue 4, p. 40-48.

Discographie sélective

  • John TAVENER, God is with us ; Hymn to the Mother of God ; Love bade me welcome ; They are all gone into the world ; Annunciation ; As one who has slept ; Song for Athene ; The Lamb ; The Lord’s prayer ; Angels ; Five anthems from The Veil of the Temple, dans « Angels and Other Choral Works », 1 CD Hyperion, 2019, CDA68255.
  • John TAVENER, Paradise choir ; Sunrise in your heart - A Christmas carol ; A New Commandment ; A Buddhist miniature ; Ikon of the nativity ; O Isplendor ; The Founder’s Prayer ; The Lamb ; Take him, Earth, for cherishing (Adieu Roger…) ; Two Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed ; Nunc dimitis ; A cradle song ; They are all gone into the world of light ; O, do not move ; O that we were there! ; Paradise choir, dans « Tavener Conducts Tavener », 1 CD Linn Records, 2015, CKD 539.
  • John TAVENER, « The Veil Of The Temple », 2 CD Signum Classics, 2014, SIGCD367.
  • John TAVENER, Song for Athene ; The Lamb ; Ieipo Oneipo ; As one who has slept ; Birthday sleep ; Three Holy Sonnets ; Schuon Hymnen ; The Lord’s prayer, dans « Iepo Oneipo / Heilagur Draumur », 1 CD Smekkleysa, 2010, SMC16.
  • John TAVENER, Zodiacs ; Ypakoë ; Palin ; Mandoodles ; Pratirūpa ; In memory of two cats, Ralph van Raat : piano, dans « Piano Music », 1 CD Naxos, 2008, 8.570442.
  • John TAVENER, « Lament For Jerusalem », 1 CD Naxos, 2006, 8.557826.
  • John TAVENER, In Alium ; To a child dancing in the wind ; The Lamb ; The Tyger ; Ikon of Light ; Mandelion ; Chant ; Ikon of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne ; The protecting veil ; Mary of Egypt ; Akhmatova songs ; Dióda ; Song for Athene ; Zodiacs ; Prayer of the heart ; Ikon of Eros ; Mother and child ; John Tavener Reflects… A Recorded Interview, dans « A Portrait (His Works・His Life・His Words) », 2 CD Naxos, 2004, 8.558152-53.
  • John TAVENER, Eternity’s Sunrise ; Song of the Angel ; Petra: a ritual dream ; Sappho: Lyrical fragments ; Funeral canticle, dans « Eternity’s Sunrise », 1 CD Harmonia Mundi, 1999, HMU 907231.
  • John TAVENER, « Fall and Resurrection », 1 CD Chandos, 2000, CHAN 9800.
  • John TAVENER, …Depart in Peace ; My gaze is ever upon you ; Tears of the Angels, dans « Tears Of The Angels », 1 CD Linn Records, 1998, CKD 085.
  • John TAVENER, Akhmatova Requiem ; Six Russian folk-songs, dans « Akhmatova Requiem », 1 CD BBC Radio Classics, 1997, 15656 91972.
  • John TAVENER, « To A Child Dancing In The Wind », 1CD Collins Classics, 1994, 14282.
  • John TAVENER, Thunder entered her ; The Lamb ; The Tiger ; Two Hymns to the Mother of God ; Responsorium in Memoriam Annon Lee Silver ; Song for Athene ; Eonia ; God is with us, dans « Ikons », 1 CD The United Recording Company Ltd., 1994, 88023.
  • John TAVENER, « Akathist Of Thanksgiving », 1 CD Sony Classical, 1994, SK 64 446.
  • John TAVENER, « Mary Of Egypt », 2 CD Collins Classics, 1993, 70232.
  • John TAVENER, « We Shall See Him As He Is », 1 CD Chandos, 1992, CHAN 9128.
  • John TAVENER, The Protecting Veil ; Third suite for cello ; Thrinos, Steven Isserlis : violoncelle, London Symphony Orchestra ; Gennadi Rozhdestvensky : direction, dans « The Protecting Veil », 1 CD Virgin Classics, 1992, 0777 7590522 9.
  • John TAVENER, The Uncreated Eros ; Magnificat ; Nunc Dimittis ; The Lamb ; Hymn to the Mother of God ; Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God ; Today the Virgin ; God is with us ; Ode of St Andrew of Crete ; Love bade me welcome ; The Tiger ; Eonia, dans « Sacred Music By John Tavener », 1 CD Hyperion, 1991, CDA66464.
  • John TAVENER, « Orthodox Vigil Service », 2 vinyles Ikon Records, 1985, IKO 16/17.
  • John TAVENER, « Ikon Of Light / Funeral Ikos / Carol: The Lamb », 1 vinyle Gimell, 1984, 1585-05.
  • John TAVENER, « The Liturgy Of St John Chrysostom Opus 32 », 1 vinyle Ikon Records, 1978, IKOS 8E.
  • John TAVENER, « Requiem For Father Malachy / Canciones Espanolas », 1 vinyle RCA Red Seal, 1976, LRL1 5104.
  • John TAVENER, « Celtic Requiem », 1 vinyle Apple Records, 1971, SAPCOR 20.
  • John TAVENER, « The Whale », 1 vinyle Apple Records, 1970, SMAS 3369.