Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Tavener: Does Not Compute

The death of Sir John Tavener has received a surprising amount (for a classical composer) of media attention, perhaps because of his 'rock star' status, his signing by the Beatles' Apple label, and his undeniable popularity - a rare thing in the classical world these days. But there's been a degree of awkwardness in the tributes, I think because of the uncomfortable (to some) fact that Tavener was overwhelmingly a religious, specifically a Christian, composer, a devout Orthodox believer who once said that 'My way towards God has been to write music.'
  This, it seems, does not compute in the minds of our cultural elite - modernism and religion surely don't sit together; we live in a secular age where religion is marginal, an individual quirk. It was interesting to hear Michael Berkeley and Roger Wright talking to fellow panjandrum Jim Naughtie on the radio this morning. Wright was especially keen to wrest our attention from what he called the 'holy minimalism' of Tavener's later work and back to his more conventionally avant-garde beginnings, while Naughtie dismissively referred to overt spirituality in music as a 'fashion' of the Eighties and Nineties(!)
  The trouble is that the likes of Naughtie and Wright take it for granted that we live in a secular age - and there is much, at least in the public sphere, to suggest that secularism does indeed prevail. The default position of the 'educated' classes is now an unexamined agnosticism or, increasingly, atheism, and there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who doesn't share this world view is at best outside the mainstream, at worst plain bonkers.
 However, when it comes to the highest forms of expression - music in particular, but also poetry - you could argue that Christian spirituality is the mainstream, even the mainstream of modernism. Tavener was hardly a lone voice in a musical landscape that includes the likes of Arvo Part, Knut Nystedt, John Rutter, Peteris Vasks and James MacMillan. A bit further back are the towering figures of two great Christian agnostics, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Messiaen and (the later) Poulenc. Similarly, in English poetry the two dominant modernists were the Anglo-Catholic Eliot and the Roman Catholic Auden, who between them wrote some of the greatest religious verse of any age  (to say nothing of the polymorphous spirituality of Yeats).
 News of the death of God seems to have been remarkably slow in reaching many of our greatest poets and composers.


  1. I think we've been so used to expressing our sense of the transcendent in religious language that the collapse of the latter has left us tongue-tied and scrabbling for a replacement we've yet to find.

    We're like nomads amid the ruins of Nineveh, marvelling at wonders which speak to us with far more eloquence than we can now offer in return.

  2. Was Auden in fact Roman Catholic? Wikipedia (I know, I know) says "Anglicanism".

  3. Quite right George - a very individualistic Anglo-Catholic it seems.
    Nice image Michael - 'What happened here? What did we do?'...

  4. I feel that the 'cultural esotericism' label, that composers like Tavener, Part etc were saddled with, and the fact that they, through their music, have managed to push on and capture a large audience for their work, is yet another example of our yearning (in the West at least) for some spiritual nourishment, in a world of technological saturation, the worship not of gods but of 'celebrity, and the relentless accumulation of possessions - of 'stuff'. I normally steer well clear of anybody supported by Charles Windsor, but in Tavener's case I'm prepared to make an exception.

  5. It seems to me that part of the problem for religion (of all creeds) is that so much of the language and liturgy that marked its dignified significance has now been done away with. Theology is too difficult for me. Religious impersonality and beauty are what kept me in the church, not smiley wiley vicars or brash and simple forms of popular culture.

  6. I entirely agree, Anonymous. Sticking to the liturgy probably explains the survival, against all odds, of the Russian Orthodox Church, and its resurgence...