John Tavener

August 10 2013

HARDtalk interviewers are sometimes out of their depth with artists, but this, with Sarah Montague, is fascinating. Only one question (at 17:32) is dumb. It seems obvious to me that all religions are in a state of senility, to use Tavener’s word. They need to be reinvented. What is happening to Islam is not a revival, but a death agony, to use my words.

It seems equally obvious to me that this doesn’t make religion passé. Tavener refers to the Hindu concept of Kali Yuga, the fourth age, after which there will be “a mighty resurgence”. It is impossible, he says, to fall out of the transcendent.

Christopher Hitchens, an English atheist, a polemicist, not a philosopher, was loved by people in the US who couldn’t stand reactionary American evangelical religion and were unhappy with what they had seen of Islam. His last appearance, when he was dying, was with the smug Richard Dawkins at the Texas Freethought (why not Atheists’?) Convention, October 2011. Report.

Does that convention feel freer, larger, livelier than the religious or agnostic run of society? No, it feels cramped, fusty and parochial, like a UFO or spiritualist meeting. Dawkins dispels ignorance of biology, but is ignorant of religion beyond the Sunday school variety and seems especially ignorant of Indian religion. He gets irritated when he is told that he does not know what religion is and that he shows a boorish dogmatism. His welcome of Hitchens and Hitchens’s speech in reply are here. Understandably, sceptics in the Bible belt embrace them.

I haven’t listened to much John Tavener. His music (religious minimalist?) seems to be telling one what to feel at every moment. I feel led by the spiritual nose. With Pärt too. Perhaps I need to hear more of it. I was moved, like most people, by Song for Athene (1993), which was played at the end of Princess Diana’s funeral. I don’t even know The Whale (1966) or The Protecting Veil (1988).

Tavener stands apart from other English composers. People call him New Age, but he is Orthodox Christian. He shows interest in other religions, but not in a religion of mish-mash, to quote Trevor-Roper on the supposed religion of Arnold Toynbee.

There are other Tavener interviews on YouTube. He is a direct descendant, he says, of the early Tudor composer John Taverner.

9 Responses to “John Tavener”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Tavener plays Beethoven and makes it sound like Tavener.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Orthodoxy in Putin’s Russia is becoming state-sponsored bigotry.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Desert Island Discs, 1994:

    Passion for cars, encounter with The Beatles, stroke at the age of 30, love of Tchaikovsky, heart attack in his 40s.

    Toying with a label such as religious minimalist as if it matters shows that I know nothing of his music.

  4. Daniel Miller Says:

    I think the label is apt in this case. Besides, we wouldn’t be able to define ‘sacred minimalism’ anyways.

    Tavener’s music for liturgical use is his best, in my opinion.

    I agree about Dawkins especially. Often I hear people my age speak his name in hushed, reverential tones. And his words are followed with (ironically) religious devotion by some young people. Certainly not his fault, but…

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Steve Martland obit, Independent, May 9, a genuine man, but I think a pretty minor composer:

    “‘Music is about the transcendent’, he said, in the context of his admiration for the work of his hero, Michael Tippett. ‘This sense of the transcendent is what people get into at rock concerts, and in a way all music is connected to that. Ultimately, it’s a substitute for lost religious states.’”

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Dawkins accuses religious people of a failure of imagination. They accuse him of a bigger failure back.

    I don’t think religion is dying, but that we are in a phase in history where progress is mainly being made elsewhere. We are attending to other matters.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Radio documentary by Nicholas Kenyon, available for a few more days:

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