Composer Sir John Tavener Dies In Dorset

13 November 2013, 06:35

Composer Sir John Tavener, one of the greatest British figures in contemporary classical music has died at the age of 69.

In the late 1960s he was famously signed to The Beatles' record label Apple and his music was notably performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess Of Wales, in 1997. 

The Prince of Wales was said to be ''saddened'' by the death earlier today, and friends such as Mia Farrow expressed their sorrow. 

Sir John, a gifted organist in his early teens before making his name as a composer, is said to have died ''peacefully at home'' in Child Okeford, Dorset. 

He was a giant not only of the classical world, but also in physical stature, standing 6ft 6in, and was instantly recognisable with his mane of collar-length blond hair. 

He rose to prominence when, after studying at the Royal Academy of Music, his oratorio The Whale was premiered at the London Sinfonietta's first concert and was released by Apple, which was better known for pop and rock releases. 

Within a decade the deeply spiritual composer found a home in the Russian Orthodox Church, and the musical traditions of the eastern churches infused much of his work. He attracted popular attention with works such as The Protecting Veil, The Lamb and Eternity's Sunrise, and Song For Athene was performed as Diana's coffin was carried out of Westminster Abbey. 

Another of his compositions, A New Beginning, saw in the new century at the Millennium Dome, and he twice featured in the shortlist for the Mercury Prize, lining up against chart stars and more esoteric performers. 

Dapper Sir John - who is survived by his wife Maryanna and three children - was knighted for Services to Music in the Millennium Honours list. 


James Rushton, the managing director of his publisher Chester Music, said: 

''John Tavener was one of the unique and most inspired voices in music of the last 50 years. 

''His large body of work - dramatic, immediate, haunting, remaining long in the memory of all who have heard it, and always identifiably his - is one of the most significant contributions to classical music in our times. 

''For all of those fortunate enough to have known him, John was a man of strong beliefs, huge personal warmth, loyalty and humour. He will be much missed.'' 


A Clarence House spokesman said: 

''The Prince of Wales was saddened to hear of the death of John Tavener.'' 


Sir John - a towering presence - had suffered health problems for a number of years. He had a stroke in 1979, and 11 year later he was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, a hereditary condition that can cause heart defects and whose sufferers are often exceptionally tall with long arm spans. 

He had heart surgery the following year and in 2007 he had a heart attack, which necessitated bypass surgery and at one stage there were fears he had suffered brain damage. While he was unconscious he was played Mozart by his wife who had flown to be at his side. 

He later recalled: 

''I apparently, in my unconscious state, began conducting. So that brought me round again.'' 

The experience helped him to accept that he could die at any time. Writing on his website, Sir John said he was introduced to classical music at ''an early age'' by his family and spent hours playing hymns on a pipe organ owned by his grandfather in north London. 

Born in Wembley Park, north London, and was a music scholar at Highgate School for Boys and went on to become the organist at St John's Presbyterian Church in Kensington at the age of 15 - a role which merged his twin interests of music and religion - and he continued to play there until the 1970s. 

Sir John also had what he once described as ''what some consider a paradoxical interest in cars'' and was a devoted admirer - and driver - of Bentleys. 

He was a Mercury nominee in 1992 for The Protecting Veil, his collaboration with Steven Isserlis, and in 1997 for Svyati. 

His friend Farrow said in a message on Twitter: 

''Peace dear friend, great composer, John Tavener.'' They hit it off in the early 1970s when she was appearing in a London stage production for which he had composer the music. 


Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms said: 

''The death of Sir John Tavener robs the classical music world of one of our most powerful and individual voices. 

''John's music touched millions of listeners - the BBC Proms, our orchestras and BBC singers have regularly commissioned and performed his work with BBC Radio 3 broadcasting it. We recorded an interview with him only recently. 

''On a personal note, it is my privilege to have known and worked with John for more than 30 years and shared many occasions that I will always treasure.'' 

The world premiere of his work, Three Shakespeare Sonnets, is due to be performed by an Icelandic choir at Southwark Cathedral in south London on Friday.