John Kenneth Tavener was born at home, 15 Greenhill, Wembley Park, London, on 28th January 1944. He was the eldest child of Kenneth and Muriel Tavener. John’s younger brother, Roger, was born three years later. The family were strongly rooted in North London, and John lived at this address for 47 years. He composed in the dining room of the suburban 1930s three-bedroomed house.
The family firm of builders, established in 1864 by John’s great great grandfather Charles, was the focus of family life. There was, in addition, a considerable amount of musical encouragement early on in life – John’s grandfather, John, was a hard task-master, but encouraged music at his impressive Hampstead studio where he had a pipe organ. John’s maternal grandfather, Ernest, and his mother Muriel, frequently supplied an appreciative audience at home. John’s grandfathers were important influences. They drove him to school, took him to concerts and gave him an interest in beautiful cars.
John went on to study the piano and organ, almost exclusively, at Highgate school. He does remember going to one science lesson, but was allowed by his music master, Edward Chapman, and the Headmaster to spend most of every day at the Organ.
After attending the Royal Academy of Music, he did some teaching in London, but mostly devoted himself to composing, supported by his mother and father. The family firm, C. Tavener & Son, passed into the safe hands of his brother Roger.
John’s talents were well known to the firm’s clients, and through these contacts, John met some of the most interesting characters of the time. Rhoda, Lady Birley, an Irish beauty living at Charleston Manor in Sussex, became his ‘adopted’ Godmother. At her London house, John would play musical portraits of the often eccentric characters at parties – Lady Bonham-Carter, Edward Heath, Lady Diana Cooper, Lady Dashwood, Lulu de la Falaise, her mother Maxine and many others.
Reputation and success came early on in the 1960s, although John was not fully able to support himself financially until the 1990s. His mother was a tremendous support at all times. Despite his confident looks, John was uneasy with the strain of public and private engagements.
John’s mother died in 1985. He continued to travel regularly to Greece, meeting poets and thinkers, writing music and traveling widely to international premiers and festivals. He met Maryanna Schaefer through the mutual friend and painter, Cecil Collins. They fell in love and married in 1991. The couple moved to Sussex, relatively close to the childhood haunt of Charleston Manor.
Two children followed while living in Sussex, much to John’s surprise, and delight. The family lived for 9 years near Hurstpierpoint in Sussex, and moved to Dorset in 2000, the year John was knighted for his services to music. Champagne flowed. Sir John launched himself into writing the seven-hour Veil of the Temple, walking in the Dorset countryside several times a day. This had enormous health benefits, and opened up another source of inspiration: nature. A third child was born in 2006.
99 words for my darling children, Theodora, Sofia and Orlando
What we know is ringed with darkness; God, however, sees it as light. Find the courage to trust this Reality; remember God every day. Strive to embrace all creations. If we are with God when all is well, He will be with us when life wounds. Seek what exhaults you, and live ‘a tout risque’. Life is a dream, but it is not our dream. All that happens to you is sent from God. Aspire to that state of bliss which inhabits all things, for ‘God is a beautiful being, and he loves beauty’. Your true self is God.
After a busy 60th birthday year in 2004, with celebrations and premiers around the world, Sir John withdrew from public life for 12 months. A glimpse at the volume of work produced around this time gives an idea of the torrent of composition that was taking place.
While attending rehearsals in Zurich in December 2007, Sir John had a sudden heart attack and emergency bypass surgery. The recovery from this was very slow – four months in intensive care on a ventillator, four months in hospital rehabilitation and several years of recovery at home. Music has continued to flow in a more measured way.