Mortality Tales

British composer John Tavener at home in Dorset

British composer John Tavener at home in Dorset

It’s an unseasonably hot spring day and John Tavener’s Dorset farmhouse is surrounded by signs of new life: flower beds are brimming with bluebells, young goats bleat from a nearby pen, chickens occupy a scruffy patch of lawn and the composer’s four-year-old son Orlando is charging from room to room with excited shrieks. So it seems strange to kick-start our conversation with a discussion of mortality but that’s where I begin.

Death is, after all, one of the enduring themes of Tavener’s work and he admits it has been a preoccupation and source of inspiration throughout his life. “Ever since the age of about four, I connected the spiritual with the musical,” he says, “and quite early on in my life, death as well.”

At the age of 15, Tavener began what would become his first major work, Three Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a grave triptych on the themes of sin, death and corruption; since then he has written three requiems and numerous pieces in memoriam, and his place in the popular psyche was secured when his short choral work, Song for Athene, was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome in the early 1990s, Tavener’s interest has sharpened. This genetic condition affecting the body’s connective tissues has led to serious heart problems in recent years, an experience that is linked, albeit obliquely, to his most recent large-scale work, Towards Silence, which will be performed at the Salisbury International Arts Festival this month.


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Date posted: May 15, 2001