“After the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, choir singers from all over the world hurried to find copies of Song for Athene, which was sung at that service, so that they too could enter that ethereal, comforting, deeply personal and uniquely imagined sound world.”
John Tavener certainly did invent his own world, one in which it was possible to reconcile contradictions of belief. The man who struggled to express “universalism” in his music was born into a Presbyterian family. Those beliefs could have shaped him into a great Christian composer. Instead, he abandoned them to ride the waves of Catholicism, then the Orthodox church, and latterly to invoke Hindu and Muslim ideas within his pseudo-Christian framework.
This is a world that must be imagined and invented, because the peace of pluralism is not real. Tavener’s music does not mirror an ecumenical paradise discovered in a Muslim country, anymore than it reflects “multi-cultural Britain”. His music tries to foretell a post-Christian world, in which all religions have been pressed into the same shape and the result is ...
What is the result?
Atheists mourn him, as a man whose music made them cry. One comment was more dismissive of the efforts to judge the man according to his beliefs:
“We should make nothing whatsoever of his royalism, spirituality, New Age-ism or anything else. We should simply judge his music as the art it is. I am not a massive fan, but one or two of his pieces are excellent. And as long he's not a serial killer or something, that is really all that matters.”
That is the sum of morality today: as long as a man is not a serial killer, he can do whatever he wants.
Place against Tavener the standard of the Christian nature of music and he fades into obscurity. He was religious, as all men are; but he was no more a composer of sacred music than Benjamin Britten!
For those who question the need for a Christian nature of music, for those who believe that I take doctrine too far by insisting that music is Christian, for those who think that art is neutral enough to hold many different points of view - I give you John Tavener. Stand at his grave and tell me what remains. Did he tickle your ears? Did he give voice to that same ambiguity that rises in your own soul? Did he make you feel normal, by vocalising the same fear, the same doubt, the same uncertainty that steals your own peace?
In a world of interpreted facts, Christianity - specifically Calvinism - allows us to rest our lives upon the truth of the Holy Scriptures. Christian music is capable of proclaiming that truth. This does not mean that every piece of music written by a Christian is “sacred” or even explicitly religious. It means that the composer is not plagued by doubt and uncertainty. The composer is not afraid of owning his peace of mind within his music.
The media have found it very timely that John Tavener should have died three days before the premiere of his new composition. They say that it is his requiem. But surely if man does not live to the glory of God, then every piece a composer writes is a requiem to himself.