by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

Who Was John Tavener, Anyway?


What’s the difference between a holy man and a saint?

Some people would say there is no difference: holy is holy is holy.  And some people would say it’s a question without a real answer, because there is really no such thing as holiness.

But for some of us this is the kind of question that opens up onto further questions of what belief is and how it works and how certain beliefs are passed from one person to another.

I tried to dramatize the distinction between the holy man and the saint when I portrayed the two founders of the Catholic Worker movement in a book a few years ago.  The transplanted French peasant Peter Maurin was a holy man, in that his very existence gave people reassurance; whether or not they sought to change their own lives, they took comfort in the belief that there still existed people who sought to live simply.  The repurposed American journalist Dorothy Day was a saint: her holiness made people want to change their own lives – to imitate her, to be like her.

That distinction came to mind with the news of John Tavener’s death earlier this week.  In England, he was known, first of all, as a “popular” classical composer, ever since the Beatles released one of his early records on their Apple label.  A few years ago the novelist Ian McEwan modeled a character on Tavener to suggest the tension between high art and popular art.  And with his death, the English obituaries focused on his colorful life, at once outsize and congenial to summary.

Here in America Tavener was known to a pretty small band of attentive people as a composer who was frankly attempting to write sacred music.  A convert to Orthodoxy, he saw his pieces – described posthumously here, here, and here – as having the meditative properties of religious icons.  He led an all-night performance of one of his works at the Temple church in London; he composed a piece meant to communicate the ninety-nine names of God.  He was dubbed “the mystic who drives a Rolls-Royce” and plenty of other things besides.  

I hand off the descriptions of those sacred works to the obituarists because I haven’t heard them.  And that is strange.  Because Tavener – educated, popular, aggressive and unapologetically religious – is just the kind of artist I am supposedly on the prowl for.

And yet Tavener functioned for me more as a holy man than a saint.  I didn’t hunt down his music.  It was enough to know that he existed. I took pleasure and a kind of reassurance from the knowledge that there was a living composer in the English-speaking world who devoted himself to sacred music.

I do have one Tavener record: a concerto for cello and orchestra called The Protecting Veil, performed by Yo-Yo Ma with the Baltimore Symphony.  I listened to it yesterday. Is it iconic, meditative, a form of prayer?  I can’t say for sure. But it was very powerful to spend part of a Saturday afternoon under the protecting veil of Tavener’s music — the spread of the orchestra, the knotted filament of the cello’s line — and to try to hear what the fuss, such as it was, was all about.

  • 17 November 2013