A Composer Worth Knowing

Sir_John_Tavener_features_in_Word_Made_FleshWhen I heard about the classical composer John Tavener’s death on November 12, I felt like someone who had once quarreled bitterly with a friend, then lost touch with him for years. Suddenly, the news comes that this friend has passed away, before you could reconnect and reconcile.

I never met Sir John Tavener, knowing him only through recordings and through his public statements. But his music changed my life profoundly – though we also had our “falling out.”

In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t. John Tavener’s legacy is complicated, but I know God used his artistry for good.

Tavener was a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and much of his music was inseparable from his faith. After my own Christian conversion from atheism, I discovered Eastern Christianity – the tradition I now practice, as a Byzantine Catholic – largely through Tavener’s art.

The influence goes further. John Tavener’s music helped me to understand the theological meaning of beauty. And his choral setting of the “Akathist of Thanksgiving,” an important Russian Orthodox text, has accompanied me through times of suffering.

Tavener’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving” is not just beautiful music, but a lesson in gratitude and sacrifice. The text, ascribed to a priest who perished in Stalin’s “Gulag Archipelago,” was set to music by a man with a serious, incurable disease. Yet the entire work has one theme: “Glory to God for all things!”

Beauty can have a transcendent meaning. Suffering can be spiritually fruitful. I learned these lessons, in part, from John Tavener’s music.

Although he has gone from among us, I hope I will someday be able to thank the composer personally – for the ways in which he served God through music, and helped me to know Christ better.

But if I do someday meet John Tavener, on that day I will also owe him an apology.

While I never rejected his music, I lost interest in it for a long period, because of my own harsh and rash judgments about his religious views and motivations. In retrospect, I wish I had judged his actions and words more charitably.

However, this is not just a personal matter between me and an artist who inspired – and frustrated – me. My “quarrel” with Tavener stems from opinions he espoused more or less openly, over many years, about the nature of faith and religious truth.

My aim is not to dredge up controversy about the dead. John Tavener was a great Christian artist, and many of his works should be part of our cultural canon. But his legacy has difficulties, too.

To “appreciate” something is to judge its true worth. If we care about Tavener’s place in the Christian culture of the future, we must be candid about the problematic aspects of his work and worldview.

*

Two clarifications are in order. First: my issues with Tavener do not revolve around typical “Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox” arguments.

Though he made some unfair statements about the Catholic Church, he was not a polemical thinker, and wrote some clearly Catholic-friendly music. I suspect he was united to the Catholic Church by that “unconscious desire and longing” mentioned by Pius XII in “Mystici Corporis Christi.”

Secondly: I do not think it was wrong, strictly speaking, for Tavener to use elements of the non-Christian religions – like Hinduism and Islam – in his later compositions. Even the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate 2).

The problem is not with Tavener’s use of non-Christian prayers and symbols, as such. The problem lies, rather, with his approach to these elements, and his reasons for using them as he did.

This was the heart of my “quarrel” with Tavener, and still causes me to look skeptically on some – though certainly not all – of his music.

John Tavener lived and died as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But he also held a pluralistic view of religious truth – seeing Christianity as one of many equally valid “paths to God,” alongside other traditions.

A major influence on Tavener, in this regard, was the Swiss Sufi Muslim convert Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) – who taught that all major religions, though outwardly different, were symbolic vehicles for the same truth about God. This teaching is sometimes called “Perennialism” or the “Traditionalist School.”

Perennialism is not a form of religious syncretism: each major religion is considered “absolutely true” for its own followers, who are taught to practice their tradition strictly. But from the Perennialist perspective, no single religion can be “definitive,” in the sense of correcting or completing the others.

Tavener held this position, and presented it in works like “The Veil of the Temple” (2001) – a seven-hour epic, involving six world religions. The composer called it his most important work, saying it was meant to show that “all religions are in the transcendent way inwardly united beneath their outward form.”

Tavener also said, in a 2002 book endorsement: “One could say that my works of the last five years or more have been dedicated to, and inspired by, the very same truths expounded by Frithjof Schuon.”

None of this means that John Tavener left Eastern Orthodoxy, or ceased to believe the Nicene Creed. Tavener professed faith in Jesus Christ – and the Lord alone is his judge. But his Perennialism, as a philosophy, must be judged incompatible with Christianity.

In his effort to validate all religions, the “Christian Perennialist” loses the literal sense of Scripture and the original meaning of Church teachings. He is forced into absurd statements: that Hindu avatars like Krishna are Jesus in another form, or that the Qur’an is divine revelation just like the Bible.

Catholics may certainly hope, and even believe, that God’s grace is mysteriously at work among those who do not explicitly believe in Christ. I strongly hope and believe this myself. I also believe that some Christians, if they are mature in their faith, can grow spiritually by studying other traditions in depth.

But Christianity and Perennialism cannot both be true. If the Protagonist of the Four Gospels founded a Church, with a mandate to baptize and teach all nations, then all spiritual traditions are not “equally valid” and “transcendently one.” On this point, John Tavener was mistaken.

*

Yet I was wrong, too: When I learned about Tavener’s Perennialism, I was quick to condemn him, and assume he had left the faith. This was unfair and unfounded. Objectively, Perennialism and Christianity are incompatible; but John Tavener, in his own mind, did not intend to abandon Christianity.

So I will remember Tavener, above all, as a man who served God through music. Jesus Christ gave him an extraordinary talent, which he used to magnify the Lord in the field of culture. His mistakes, theological or artistic, do not outweigh this fact.

I will also remember him for bringing beauty out of suffering. I alluded earlier to Tavener’s incurable illness – Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that brought him close to death many times before his passing at age 69.

His website notes that “health, or rather the lack of it, has been a constant factor in Tavener’s life.” Evidently, the threat of death spurred him to focus – personally and musically – on the transcendent and eternal. He did not have the luxury of assuming he would be long for this world.

Really, though, none of us have that luxury. We are all just as frail and mortal as John Tavener. If we paid more mind to that fact, we might get serious about serving God with every moment we still have.

The awareness of mortality is a great weapon in our spiritual arsenal. There is a medieval English text, the anonymous “Epistle of Prayer,” in which a spiritual director gives this advice to a man seeking help with distractions in prayer:

“Make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time [your prayer] is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does … There is not a man alive today who would dare deny its possibility, to say you would necessarily live longer than your prayer.”

“Almost certainly you will live longer than your prayer,” the director notes. “But it is wrong to bank on it, and a mistake to promise it to yourself.”

Given his wide reading, Tavener may have known the “Epistle of Prayer.” His life, at any rate, reflects its teaching. We all live “in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79) – and we must serve God with the time we have, not knowing if that is five years or five minutes.

So this is how I will remember Sir John Tavener: as a man who faced death courageously, confident in Christ’s resurrection and determined to manifest God’s beauty.

And this is how I will appreciate his music now. I only wish I had regained this perspective during his life. May his memory be eternal.

“With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant, where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”

 

image: Devlin Crow/Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Mann

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Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • Seraphim

    Tavener explains himself in this BBC interview I found yesterday, including a strong avowal of his fidelity to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and certain statements which were subsequently quoted out of context and misinterpreted by the secular media. He also tries to defend the idea that “all religions are true” by appealing to Plato and to a Patristic idea of the “logoi spermatikoi” planted in the hearts of all men – the vestiges of the union of Heaven and Earth. This is not to say that perennialism is correct, of course, or that one can make the leap from “all religions contain elements of truth and sanctification, left over from a ‘general revelation’ discerned through the natural law” to “all religions are true”, and Tavener was to be faulted for that. But he doesn’t go around saying “Krishna is another form of Jesus”, and however you interpreted Cutsinger to that effect, Schuon also distinguishes the different types of incarnation found in those two figures, and the different Platonic archetypes they represent. Schuon’s work is of course insufficient and in certain vital ways downright wrong. However, T. S. Eliot had high praise for the problematic book in question (“The Transcendent Unity of Religions”), and many of his Catholic and Orthodox disciples (Fr. Rama Coomaraswamy, Louis Charbonnay-Lassy, Wolfgang Smith, Stratford Caldecott, Jean Hani and Jean Borella on the Catholic side, Phillip Sherrard and James Cutsinger on the Orthodox side) have been careful to try (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to stay within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Jacques Maritain, Jean Danielou, and Cardinal Rampolla can be listed as being affiliated with the movement as well, although not as Schuon’s disciples – Maritain taught Schuon’s master Rene Guenon, advocated for him and even financially provided for him when academia not surprisingly rejected his dissertation on the Vedanta, and the two Cardinals helped ensure that his books remained off the Index and in print, despite their contradictions to Catholic orthodoxy.

    Please forgive me, my brother, if I have been overzealous, overargumentative or obnoxious in disputing this with you, here or on facebook. I intend no hostility. :)

    IC XC NIKA

    ~Seraphim

    Here is the BBC interview:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2kdFYm8eDg

  • Lee

    When we recognize our own judgement of others we must be open to the fact that we too are judged. I truly appreciate that you have been able to grow in your spirituality . What more would God ask of you?Remember to pray for our dead, that they may be brought to life Eternal.

  • John Uebersax

    If I may, I would like to offer that the term “Perennialism” has several distinct meanings today. Not all meanings imply equal efficacy of all religions, but might, for example make the milder proposal that all religions are motivated by common needs and yearnings of the human spirit. Perennialism also need not preclude an evolutionary improvement of religions over time; thus, for example, we may allow that ancient religions often contained important nuclei of truth, yet also believe that Christianity has supplanted them.

  • chaco

    I use this thought to help make sense of Truth Vs. Error; If 2 children make a cake for Daddy, and one of the cakes is leaning, Papa won’t judge according to the apparent results. Rather, He will judge according to the * SINCERITY * of trying that each child invested. Within this premise, it is possible for the child with the leaning cake to actually be in better standing with Daddy than the one who got it right. [We must always remember Mt. 24: 24 ; "...to deceive, if possible, even the very elect."] I’m reminded of a Gerry Rafferty song; “If you did it wrong, you did it right next time”, which suggests that if you were unintentionally wrong (“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”), you can still be right (innocent) after you meet your Maker & see where you were mistaken. This all presupposes that one must be aware of their error in both Head & Heart (Intellect -Will-Imagination-Memory) to have culpability meriting damnation. Thank God that only He can read the Heart & determine such culpability.

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