on 19 May 2013
A young man once told me, after I had preached, that I was a genius. I was flattered until he began to elaborate what became a back-handed compliment about how interesting it is to hear people with odd, unconventional ideas.
I think Tavener is a genius and some of his ideas are odd - but far more interesting than those of more conventional musicians.
I first became aware of him when Radio 3 broadcast his Celtic Requiem. I liked the interplay of the Latin mass with children's nursery rhymes, though I was slightly amused when the posh voice of the presented said, `During the Agnus Dei the children dismember a teddy bear....' Not quite what I am used to during the fraction of the Eucharistic host. I didn't realise, until reading this book, the influence of David Holbrook - who was de rigeur when I did my PGCE (they taught us child development then, unlike current `training' after being tampered with by Tory governments afraid that any real pedagogy will turn out socialists.)
The next piece I encountered was The Whale. After the posh voiceover quoting the Oxford English Dictionary: "The whale is a mammal...." Come all sorts of bells, notably sanctus bells of the sort I have often rung in `very high;' churches (moderately high ones use gongs!). I have used The Whale when teaching children to meditate. It works well.
During a time when I found it hard to meditate, I went through a phase of listening to music for thirty minutes, while lying on my back. Bishop Peter Firth introduced me to minimalist music during a chat (in Sainsbury's) - John Adams et al. I loved using The Protecting Veil for this purpose, though some loud bits can be alarming if you're about to fall asleep. I also discovered the Dagar Brothers, with their chewing over a syllable from the Vedas for a whole hour, via Tavener.
I am not so musical as to understand fully what an `unresolved' chord is but I know that The Lamb sends shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes every time I hear it and I tell our choir that they really should follow it with The Tiger by way of resolution.
Mother Thekla is an interesting character and I was saddened to read that people spat at her because they thought she was a Muslim. (It's a shame that her tradition perpetuates the idea of Mary Magdalen as reformed prostitute - the orthodox don't seem interested in modern scholarship, least of all if the word `feminism' is involved somewhere. There's also the mistaken, or at least unscriptural belief that Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for having sex, not for disobedience.)
John's taste in expensive cars, his narcissism and his general intensity must make him virtually impossible to live with. That he `uses' people then has a tendency to drop them doesn't endear me to him either, though I have a slight tendency to do the same, though nobody ever gets dropped permanently. It seems he was considering dumping both his wife and Mother Thekla at a timer when both were going through periods of bereavement. It's all very well having brilliant insights into religion but `by their fruits ye shall know them.'
His inability to separate from his mother until age forty may account for his failed marriages and when he spoke of `sacred sex' whilst still a virgin must be enough for many to write him off as `a fake'.
His eclectic taste in religion seems to have been in his genes, having, for example, Christian Scientist grandparents.
I had to look up Marfan's syndrome to discover that it is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. People with Marfan tend to be unusually tall, with long limbs and long, thin fingers. In its severe form it can affect the heart, lungs and eyes. There is a tendency towards a high IQ, which explains John's life and why many with lesser intelligence may fail to understand or appreciate him and his work.
He has been a bit of a lush but he explains that Stravinsky wrote some of his best work after drinking a whole bottle of whiskey. Maybe that's why Tavener and Mia Farrow suddenly decided to play a church organ at 3am and woke up an angry priest in search of the keys to his church.
I am sure Donald Soper gave as good as he got when Taverner heckled him in Hyde Park for not talking about the mother of Christ.
There's a sort of conversion experience when Tavener realises that his music is coming from his own ego and that he needs to empty himself to receive and tune in to the Spirit.
I am sometimes accused of syncretism, of eclectic pick and mix. Some Christian exclusivists will write this off as psycho-babble and/or heresy but I liked the observation that: 'I was reading another Sufi, 12th century, Ibn 'Arabi,' said John. 'He writes, "Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively so that you disbelieve in all the rest, otherwise you lose much good, nay you will fail to recognise the real truth of the matter. Let your soul be capable of embracing all forms of belief. God omnipresent and omnipotent is not limited by any one creed ..." The material world veils the metaphysical realm, our inner worlds are also veiled, and there is agreement with the monastery on this. Mother Maria Skobtsova said that 'the divine image [in man] is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil', a line that mirrors Schuon's words: 'Human veils are, firstly, man himself, the ego in itself, then the passional and darksome ego, and finally passions, vices, sins, without forgetting ... concepts and thoughts in so far as they clothe the truth.' The veil is, therefore, 'on the world and in the soul', as Schuon writes. It is the doctrinal veil of all the various religions, beneath which lies truth. ....I read somewhere else a Catholic writing, "It is quite evident from the Gospel of St John that the Logos is eternal and existed prior to the Incarnation of Jesus and was fully active in all other cultures.......The point about Schuon's notion of unification is that it encourages the idea that Christianity and all other religions, are merely symbolic veils."