The music world was shaken by the death on 12 November 2013 of renowned British composer Sir John Tavener, aged just 69. The Guardian hailed him as “the single most popular British classical composer of the late 20th and 21st centuries.”
Tavener was born in 1944 in London. His father was in the building business, and organist at a church in Hampstead. At 12, young Tavener was taken to Glyndebourne to see Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (Magic Flute). That same year, he also heard Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, “the piece that woke me up and made me want to be a composer.”
In the Highgate school choir, he gained choral experience singing works for the BBC, like Mahler’s Third Symphony and Orff’s Carmina Burana. He quickly became a proficient pianist, organist and choirmaster, but decided to focus on composition after getting admitted into the Royal Academy of Music in 1962, where his teachers included Sir Lennox Berkeley.
In 1968, his cantata The Whale premiered at the London Sinfonietta’s début concert, which also was the opening concert of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A friendship struck up with the Beatles (Tavener’s brother was doing building work for Ringo Starr) led to the work being recorded and released by Apple Records.
Tavener’s deep spirituality bled into the vast majority of his compositional oeuvre, especially after his conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. His haunting “Song for Athene”, sung by Goan-origin soprano Patricia Rozario at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 catapulted him into international prominence.
Rozario had a close working relationship with Sir John that went back to 1991. She was therefore among the select few in the music world (along with composers John Rutter and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, cellist Steven Isserlis and Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms) to be interviewed soon after the news of his death broke.
I interviewed her by telephone a day after Tavener’s death. “I first read about Tavener in the 1980s in a book featuring British composers. I learnt how deeply spiritual his music was, and was drawn to that.” She thought of writing to him, but was too shy to do so.
Then in 1991, director Lucy Bailey recommended her to Tavener. She remembers being terrified at first, and having to sight-read huge portions of the score. “In his music, there was something I had never experienced before.”
Tavener himself described the encounter on his website “I had begun [the opera] Mary of Egypt, and had heard of Patricia Rozario, who was both a singer and Indian. The fact that she was Indian greatly interested me, because I needed a voice for St Mary that could naturally sing Eastern microtones. Patricia came and sang Mozart and Schubert. I then put some of Mary of Egypt in front of her and explained about the Eastern inflections: the result was stunning. Here was this Western trained singer who had a naturally rich Indian character to her voice. I wrote Mary of Egypt for her and almost everything else that I wrote for soprano for the next twenty years.”
He came backstage to her afterward and told her he wanted her to perform and record all of his music. She effectively became his Muse. In later years, he confessed to her that when he composed for soprano, “he heard my voice in his head.”
Rozario reminisced to me how she chose to sing Tavener’s music above several more lucrative offers at the time, considerably vexing her agents in doing so. “But I have not looked back since.”
Over the years, he would ring her with details of a new composition, and send her the text and music, and check technical details like the vocal range. He was extremely particular about issues like diction. He was initially extremely demanding at rehearsals until she ‘connected’ with his sound world. But then he would leave her free, and would write more and more challenging parts for her, pushing it high into the stratosphere. “I felt a sense of responsibility with each new piece,” says Rozario.
Among the dozens of compositions that Tavener wrote for Rozario, which are particularly dear to her? She spoke to me of several: the Veil of the Temple, We Shall See Him As He Is, Lament of the Mother of God, Cantus Mysticus, but singled out the Akhmatova Requiem and Agraphon. “In Agraphon, Tavener took me back to my roots. The singer needs to go and study with an Indian guru to do it justice. I worked with musicians at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan London to bring out its nuances.”
Rozario describes him as “patient and gentle”. “He had a very clear idea of how he wanted his music to sound… His music has still, pure sounds, rather like the music of Arvo Pärt. He would say “Don’t interpret! Let the music flow through you.” He didn’t want the artist to get in the way of the music. And I learnt that it was actually much more powerful this way… just the words and the music, rather than trying to colour it in a personal way. It almost became more universal”.
“One needs to really study the score, follow his comments in the manuscript, and gain control of the line. This control comes from singing it over and over, and really thinking about the text and its spiritual meaning.”
Tavener recognised in Rozario’s voice “a unique spiritual and primordial quality that I have never been able to find in another singer.” He went on to write over thirty works for her, making their collaboration unique in the contemporary field. Tavener remarked that “when Rozario sings, she becomes the music”, high praise indeed.
I vividly remember the first time I met Patricia Rozario, it was with Sir Tavener, in September 2003. I was working in Ashford, Kent at the time, and Canterbury was within driving distance and one of my favourite haunts. She was singing an all-Tavener programme at Canterbury Cathedral, the world premiere of his Supernatural Songs, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. It was a truly sublime experience.
Tavener came across as severe and quiet in the public eye, but Rozario said “once he got to know you, he talked a lot. He would tell you all kinds of stories, and had a wonderful sense of humour. He was great fun with musicians.”
She has sung Tavener’s music at six of her several BBC Proms appearances. Other venues include Lincoln Cathedral, the Lincoln Centre New York, and the Delphi Arena in Greece.
In her public statement to the British press, Rozario said: “He really connected with our humanity, and people from all walks of life and different areas.
“Once he told me there were a whole group of youngsters who listened to his music while at a rave party, and he was quite touched by that, that even young people connected with his music.”
To hear Patricia Rozario singing John Tavener’s music, type both names into the YouTube searchbar.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 24 November 2013)