That’s an epithet that can apply in so many ways to Sir John Tavener – a giant of stature, a giant of thought, a giant of spirituality, a giant of musical concept and, apart from his own self-confrontation where he could be brutally judgmental, he was always a gentle giant.
I say was, of course, because he died only a few days ago on 12th November. “Peacefully at home” is recorded in the public obituaries, but he was still writing with full force and I somehow think that he will not necessarily have gone gentle into that good night.
The news of John’s death was particularly poignant for me as I had encountered him briefly on the forecourt of BBC Broadcasting House in London where he and his family were awaiting a taxi after he had recorded an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. We exchanged greetings and he seemed on reasonable form.
I have several striking memories of this gentle giant. I remember seeing him for the first time at a service at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Ennismore Gardens, which he frequented during the time when his Greek Orthodox faith was of paramount importance. He was, literally, head and shoulders above the assembled worshippers. If you are familiar with Greek Orthodox tradition, you will know that the faithful participate standing. This particular occasion was led by the Archbishop, Metropolitan Anthony – an even greater spiritual giant.
When John received his classical IVOR, he spoke, as so often on public occasions, in a direct and uncompromising manner and he pinned a room full of music industry hardheads to a memorable silence as he spoke of the gift of music and the intellectual heart.
Commentators have liked to describe his music as sacred minimalism but for me that is too small a box and too shallow a source. His work has a complex simplicity, born not of a lack of rigour, but rather springing from a life of searching, of questioning, of seeking. There are layers but they are not dense; there is movement but it is not abrupt; there are climaxes but they are never forced or greedy.
There is no doubt that John’s music has already touched millions – that in itself is a giant contribution to society, to culture, to humanity and to life.
Peace be with him.