Sir John Tavener is big in Russia, and his take on Orthodox liturgical traditions is generating increasing interest among Russian audiences. Performances of his music there have so far been limited, but an all-Tavener concert has been arranged for 11 May in St Petersburg, part of the celebrations to mark “Bright Week” in the Orthodox calendar (http://www.choirfestival.ru/). Ahead of the concert, I interviewed Tavener (by email) about his views on Russia and his relationship with Orthodoxy today. The interview will be appearing in Крещенские вечера (Epiphany Evenings), the journal for the concert season, so naturally it’s aimed at a Russian readership. Nevertheless, there is much here that will be of interest to Western readers. I was particularly interested in Tavener’s views on the increasingly political identity of the Orthodox Church in Russia and how this is threatening its moral authority. I wonder how that will go down with Russian readers...
East meets West in the music of Sir John Tavener. The composer holds a central position in British musical life, a fact recognised by his status as a Knight of the Realm. His music is regularly performed by British cathedral choirs, who work within a distinctively Anglican performance tradition. Yet Tavener looks Eastward for his inspirations, primarily to the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. His ability to present the musical traditions of Orthodoxy in a way that appeals to listeners from many cultures has led to an increasingly international audience for his music, including a significant following in Russia. Ahead of performances of his works in St. Petersburg this spring, I interviewed Sir John Tavener about his work, his relationship with Russian culture, and his thoughts on what his music has to say to Russian audiences.
An obvious connection to Russia in Tavener’s music is his use of the Russian language in many works. “I find Russian is a very musical language” Tavener tells me, “and it seems to produce a specific kind of Russianness in my music.” Many successful performances of his Russian-language works by English-speaking choirs have demonstrated that the language is not a problem for the singers. But what of the style? Do Russian choirs perform his music better? “A Russian choir sounds beautiful and brings something special to my music, and so does an English cathedral choir. So I must write a music that will sound beautiful in both, in their different ways.”
Choral traditions may be different in Britain and Russia, but Tavener is reluctant to generalise about how audiences in different countries respond. He focuses instead on individual listeners and their personal engagement with the traditions of the Church. “Tradition works differently in everyone. It is a mystery and so is music and so is God and I prefer to leave it like that.”
That belief in tradition as a core value is something Tavener shares with his friend Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. Knowing that the Prince takes a great interest in many forms of spirituality, I ask Tavener what the Prince’s views are on the Orthodox faith. Again, it comes down to the central role of tradition. “The Prince loves tradition – he feels very at home in the Orthodox Church – it is in his genes. When I first went in to an Orthodox Church I knew I had come home. I think he feels something similar.”
But tradition can be a complex issue in the creative arts: when working within a tradition, where does the tradition end and the composer’s personality begin? The Russian theorist and composer Vladimir Martynov has suggested that the predominance of liturgical traditions and religious themes in recent music signals “the end of the age of composers”. When music makes recourse to timeless values, as embodied in the traditions of liturgical music, Martynov believes, the composer’s personality, and even their identity, become irrelevant. When I put this idea to Sir John Tavener, he disagrees, saying that music should be both spiritual and personal.
“I think there is a colossal spiritual decline from Victoria to Schoenberg, but both, in their ways are great composers, and indeed deeply personal and bubbling with individual identity. And there is probably a decline from Mozart to Arvo Pärt. But again, both composers have a deep spirituality. If composers are any good they will be spiritual and individual.”
Tavener’s own spiritual journey has been closely linked with the Orthodox faith, ever since he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. His relationship with the Church has become somewhat looser in recent years. When I ask his thoughts on the status of the Orthodox faith in the modern world, he expresses both concerns and hope.
“What worries me today are the aspects of Nationalism, prevalent in Orthodox countries. If it can lose this aspect I think it would make a much stronger impact on a world that is dilapidated and that has lost the precious language of ritual, signs and symbolism. If it hangs on to Nationalism it will remain as ineffectual and dilapidated as the secular culture.”
But Tavener’s relationship with Russia itself, with both the country and the people, seems wholly positive. “My visit to Moscow many years ago, to hear my Akhmatova Requiem with Gennady Rozhdestvensky was one of the most moving of my life. My great hope is that I may return before I depart this world. The country and landscape of Russia made a deep impression on me.” I put it to Tavener that his music is enjoying increasing popularity among Russian audiences. This doesn’t surprise him, and he puts it down to shared spiritual beliefs between himself the Russian people, and to a shared scepticism toward some developments in the West.
“I believe that Russians will have a strong affinity with my music. All Russians I have ever known have had an innate sense of the sacred, an innate sense of tradition, and my music has been fashioned by these things and the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. I also believe that Russians in general have no time for the intellectual musical ‘kitchens’ of Europe. My greatest dream is to hear my Universalist vigil The Veil of the Temple, sung in Russia as well as the Akathist of Thanksgiving and Resurrection.”
“Universalist” is a term Tavener often uses to describe the spirituality of his more recent music. He has become increasingly interested in revealing the “basic truth” that religions share. When I ask Tavener to elaborate, with particular reference to The Veil of the Temple, it becomes clear that, even within this culturally diverse framework, both his music and his faith remain grounded in the traditions of the Orthodox Church.
“My seven hour vigil The Veil of the Temple is constructed like an Orthodox vigil, but within that structure it contains aspects of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and the primordial religion of the American Indians. It is my dream for this to be performed in a cathedral in Russia, just as it has been performed in Anglican Cathedrals in England. The way forward must now be Universalist, but we must always keep our Orthodox roots.”