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New and Orthodox

Hear ancient sounds in Tavener's music

Some of the most exciting, most "contemporary," spiritual music written today makes significant use of ancient traditions, both musical and theological. A master is 56-year-old British composer Sir John Tavener, who (along with Arvo Part of Estonia) is one of my favorites in this genre.

Since Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church more than 20 years ago, he has written music almost exclusively for sacred occasions. All his work displays influences of the rich Orthodox musical tradition — especially the vocal pieces with some in Greek, some in English. He first studied the Orthodox faith, in fact, because of his interest in its music and the visual art of the church. Tavener's compositions, however, speak profoundly to people of other religions as well.

One of his music's most distinctive traits is the use of unusual vocal harmonies, often based on Orthodox chant. Another is the manipulation of volume.

It's not easy to recommend a particular Tavener work as an introduction. He became more widely known when his "Song for Athene" was part of the 1997 funeral service for Diana, princess of Wales. It appears on several of his recordings, as does the only other short piece of his that can be called popular: "The Lamb," to a text by poet William Blake. A good introduction containing both, along with several other short pieces, is Innocence (1995, Sony Classics disc #66613). Another miscellany, including "The Lamb," is John Tavener (1991, Gimell disc #4549052).

Tavener has also written several longer compositions, including "Eternity's Sunrise" and "The Protecting Veil."

Be sure to note the spelling: Tavener. It's easily confused with that of his countryman John Taverner (1495-1545) who also wrote sacred music. Taverner was choirmaster at Oxford [England] University from 1526 to 1530. His compositions are considered excellent examples of early Tudor style. From Taverner to Tavener (1992, Nimbus disc #5328) is a well-done selection of the Christ Church Cathedral choir singing sacred music of the past 500 years.


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