Being terribly boring, I’ve always worried about how on earth I’m going to impress my kids when they are older. So I’ve hung on to my Artists pass from the 1997 Mercury Music Awards, which I attended courtesy of Sir John Tavener, RIP.
His piece, Svyati, had been nominated, and while the main feature was Steven Isserlis on the ‘cello, it also required a choir. In those days I sang with the Elysian Singers, whose patron was Tavener. We often performed his work for him, although rarely live on TV, ranged up a staircase at the Grosvenor House Hotel. I recall that at one point the Mercury presenters were trying to engage him in small talk about Svyati, and he entirely floored Jools Holland by telling him that he thought ‘people are just pus, really.’
Many people know of Tavener because his Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. He was also famous for an avant-garde oratorio called The Whale, which was released by The Beatles on their Apple label in 1968. He was an extraordinary man in so many ways – a bit like the BFG in appearance, although more austere. On hearing of his death, aged 69, Sir John Rutter said ‘He could bring an audience to a deep silence which is a very rare gift. He believed that music was for everybody and was a prayer.’
So I was highly delighted to be invited back to sing Tavener with the Elysians at the Royal Festival Hall last night – another Artists pass! (first piece after the interval at about 1hr 34). We performed a piece he’d written in homage to Beethoven and for the new RFH organ. It was the world premiere of his last completed piece, and ends fittingly with the dona pacem from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and much is made of his links with Mount Athos. His work certainly draws heavily on orthodox chant and religious texts, but he also cited the English bell-ringing tradition as an inspiration, which you can hear in last night’s organ part. Having sung so much of his work, there has always been a contemplative quality to performing it (apart from the fact that it is quite hard to remain entirely contemplative if you are either a bass or a soprano, owing to his penchant for Russian depth and angelic height). His lines of sound render both choir and audience somehow transported, in the same way that the extraordinary beauty of nature can just for a moment lift the veil between earth and heaven. Tavener’s great gift has been to leave us this legacy of music that can’t help but stop people in their tracks and suggest the possibility of the sublime. He once said: ‘I wanted to produce music that was the sound of God. That’s what I have always tried to do.’
Monument for Beethoven: O God! Direct my mind! O God! Raise me up from this grievous depth! Thou art present throughout the world. Dona pacem, pacem