Last Monday, Sir John Tavener appeared on Radio 4's Start the Week. Its host reflects on the composer's wit and wisdom
• Read Nico Muhly's tribute to his fellow composer
Sir John Tavener has been an eerie and challenging presence in our national life for many decades. I met him only a few days ago when he came in to talk about George Herbert, the great English poet, for Radio 4's Start the Week. He was frail, yes, but carried with him a blazing intelligence and cheerful serenity.
The floating cloud of hair, the long, lined, noble face and the deliberate speech were all exactly as expected. He was kindly, without a trace of pomposity - and funnier than I expected. He fed biscuits to his small son who was racing around the studio. The puzzle was that Sir John, who could seem like an official wizard clasped to the bosom of the establishment, was also a hugely popular Beatles-era artist with a distinctly radical streak. His early music was considered anti-establishment, even revolutionary.
And for such a figure of intimidating spiritual authority, his background could hardly be less expected – a family of builders from Wembley.
There can be very few people in this country who have never heard his music, even if only The Protecting Veil and Song for Athene. In terms of reach, he was the most important composer of serious music left in these islands, but his appeal could not have been more direct or irresistible. Friends who know far more than I do tell me he was a highly sophisticated and complex musician. Clearly, he was great enough and confident enough to hide it. The confidence came, without doubt, from his strong religious views. Nobody can begin to deal with Tavener's achievement without starting there.
Our conversation was about George Herbert's poetry and why it is that religious forms – poetry and music both – still seem so important in such a secular age. Jeanette Winterson, a one-time Pentecostalist, responded that it was "the vexed question about how the soul can adapt to the world that is always in flux" It wasn't, she said, that the soul was static but: "The soul is a part of us that even the most secular person can understand – we know what we mean when we say 'someone's got soul' or something is 'soulless'." There was "this rather lonely part of ourselves which is the soul … life has an inside as well as an outside."
Tavener nodded vigorously. He was greatly seized by the fact that Herbert frequently uses the word love where another poet would say "God". He had been working on Dante and he quoted the poet's famous words: "All my thoughts speak of love."
Sir John's spiritual journey began as a Presbyterian but, after taking in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions, seemed to be heading towards Eastern metaphysics. We were at the end, he told us, of the Kali-Yugo, which in the Hindu scriptures means the long age of darkness, corruption and vice. (Guardian readers who find their eyes rolling at this point might reflect that, according to the Scriptures, this age is supposed to be characterised by "unfair taxation"; a belief that sexual intercourse is the most important thing in life; and an obsession with drink and drugs. There is no actual mention of Russell Brand or even of David Dimbleby's tattoo, but still, as the youth put it, "just saying".)
At any rate, he proposed that the end of this period would be characterised by a "recovery of the sacred in a new form" in which everybody rediscovered their inner selves. He himself was moving towards breaking down religious boundaries – he composed a piece about the 99 names of God in Arabic according to Islam, performed, controversially, in a Roman Catholic cathedral. Although he still considered himself an Orthodox Christian, he quoted his early Presbyterian pastor who once told him: "Life is a creeping tragedy; that's why we must be cheerful."
The challenge he proposed is not remote, I'd suggest, from daily life. It isn't airy-fairy or esoteric.It is simply: can we feed that lonely and inside part of ourselves that Winterson happily calls the soul, without forming into warring religious teams and going to war with one other?
As a composer, Sir John had no duty to resolve religious controversy. But for millions of people, his musical answers – those soaring chords, those weightless, timeless periods – proposed an optimistic "yes". That's the power of art. And as an artist, he really was a magus of great power.