June 10, 2007


'I had a dream vision': John Tavener tells Charlotte Higgins how his life-changing encounter with an Apache medicine man led him to write a piece praising Allah for the Prince of Wales (Charlotte Higgins, June 11, 2007, The Guardian)

The next big moment for Tavener is the premiere of a large-scale piece for chorus and orchestra. It has been commissioned by the Prince of Wales, with whom he became friends more than a decade ago "because we share views on the importance of all religious traditions". Again, what you will make of this one depends on your point of view. It's called The Beautiful Names, and it's a setting of the 99 names for Allah from the Qur'an. It's going to be performed in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral next week, then a few days later in Istanbul. Tavener is Greek Orthodox, to which he converted years ago after a Presbyterian upbringing. [...]

When he starts talking about his music being written through divine agency and having visions brought on by chatting to Apache medicine men and what a bad idea the Enlightenment was, part of you wants to snort with derision. The other part realises that, however batty it all sounds, he means it, and it's real for him. If a sense of conviction is a defence these days (and according to Tony Blair, it is), then at least you can say of Tavener: it's not phoney.

In recent years he has begun to broaden his spiritual horizons, he tells me over tea in the garden. "The path I follow is still an Orthodox path," he says. "You have to follow a path, otherwise it becomes a little bit new-age, a bit of this, a bit of that ... But I suppose I had a dream vision after a visit from an Apache Indian medicine man. Many people when they've met American Indians have very strong dreams afterwards. I had a kind of vision from the Sufi Frithjof Schuon, who was a believer in the inner transcendent unity of all religions. And he seemed to be giving me permission, in a way, to work musically within other traditions. It wasn't that the Christian thing was failing me in any way, but rather that it enriched it by going into other things, particularly Hinduism and Sufism."

He is planning a choral piece called The Flood of Beauty, a setting of a 9th-century Sanskrit poem that "shows God in the feminine aspect, as beauty". There's also the premiere in Zurich this year of a Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In his note on the piece, he writes: "I have used Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, American Indian, German and Italian to express something of the divine effulgence of the feminine that the Mother of God has revealed to my soul."

One of the dedicatees of the work is Pope Benedict. Tavener is an admirer, then? "Sort of, because he's a traditionalist, and I think that's very important. Part of the senility of religion, I seriously believe, is Vatican Two [an Ecumenical Council of the Vatican which held sessions between 1962-65]. It was the third betrayal of Christ. Where they started throwing out Latin and all the best music ... I think it was a downward path for the Catholic church. It was trying to modernise religion. They are eternal truths and if you try to modernise it, it just becomes ridiculous."

The Enlightenment, and the art associated with it, is just as bad: "In his late quartets, Beethoven introduces an element that shouldn't be there, that should be left for meditation, though I love them. I can see that through them came Wagner and Mahler and Schoenberg and Berg. And then came Tracey Emin. And I can see it all as one downward path."

Wisdom begins with the recognition that it's all downhill beginning with Beethoven.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2007 7:56 PM

Does that make Wolfie the apogee?

Posted by: ghostcat at June 10, 2007 10:46 PM

"I have used Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, American Indian, German and Italian to express something of the divine effulgence of the feminine that the Mother of God has revealed to my soul."

Indeed, one wouldn't want a snippet of Hebrew getting in the way of any effulgence, divine or otherwise.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 11, 2007 3:05 AM


Posted by: oj at June 11, 2007 6:18 AM

Bach. Wolfie is a talented coda.

Posted by: oj at June 11, 2007 6:19 AM

To quote Rush, what Barbra Streisland.

Posted by: erp at June 11, 2007 8:36 AM

Yaquis, not Apache. The made-up bulls**t medicine men are supposed to be Yaquis.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 11, 2007 5:49 PM