Obituary: John Tavener / British composer known for spiritual pieces

Jan. 28, 1944 - Nov. 12, 2013

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Composer John Tavener, whose works ranged from angry, dissonant cantatas to achingly beautiful choral works sung around the world during holidays, died Tuesday at his home in Child Okeford in southern England, according to his publisher, Chester Music.

He was 69 and had been suffering from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that contributed to his towering height -- he stood 6 feet, 6 inches -- and weakened heart.

Mr. Tavener first came to fame with his raucous 1968 cantata "The Whale" that was so admired by John Lennon that it was released on the Beatles' Apple record label. But Mr. Tavener's best known compositions are meditative, spiritual pieces rooted in the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity he embraced in his 30s, as well as other religions.

Among those works are the 1993 "Song for Athene," which was played during the funeral for Princess Diana in 1997, and a quiet 1982 setting of William Blake's "The Lamb," often performed at Christmastime. His music was also used in films such as Terrence Malick's 2011 "The Tree of Life" and Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 "Children of Men."

And even though his compositions became far more gentle than in his early years, it didn't keep him from experimenting with the form and challenging audiences. His 2003 "The Veil of the Temple," for example, is a choir piece of epic proportions -- it takes seven hours to perform.

Mr. Tavener, knighted in 2000, suffered numerous medical setbacks in recent years, including heart attacks.

John Kenneth Tavener was born Jan. 28, 1944, in London. At an early age, he studied piano and organ, and began composing works for a Presbyterian church where his father was an organist, according to Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and his 1966 cantata "Cain and Abel" won the Prince Rainier III of Monaco Prize.

"The Whale," based on the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, was debuted by the London Sinfonietta. It included electronic sounds, noisemakers used by crowds at soccer matches, a whip and bullhorns. " 'The Whale' is a piece written by an angry young man," Mr. Tavener said in 2004, as quoted by the Guardian. "I was angry because the world didn't see the cosmos in metaphysical terms."

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