The two twentieth century British composers who have had the most profound effect on me are William Mathias and John Taverner. So it was with great sadness that I read of the death of Sir John, last week. The power of pieces like Ultimos Ritos, Apocalypse, the Celtic Requiem and Eis Thanaton to evoke that which is beyond, connecting us to the source of life, is remarkable. Taverner himself said, 'There is nothing easy about achieving simplicity' and his music is an embodiment of that simple truth. Deceptively effortless and somehow in time and tune with both the rolling spheres and the breath of the sleeping infant, it takes us to a place where the boundaries of self and the world beyond touch, through the exquisite use of finely disciplined sound, rhythm and timbre. He said that writing music became, for him, ultimately an act of prayer, something that brought him into the presence of God.
It was a poignant and remarkably apt co-incidence that Taverner's last public appearance was on a radio programme whose subject was the light that religious art throws on the experience of approaching death. Andrew Marr's Radio 4 programme Start the Week posed the question, 'Why is it that religious poetry and music are found to appeal to those who would not describe themselves as religious when they gaze on the spectre of their own mortality?' I listened because I was interested in the question. Afterwards, I was glad I had glimpsed, briefly, the wisdom of one whose music speaks of eternity and who was himself, unsuspected at the time, so close to death.
Often, in the hospice where I work, people who would not describe themselves as religious nevertheless find that the stories, poetry and language of religion give them a space in which they can dare (or sometimes bear) to explore what approaching death might mean. Music, too, can be more than a solace - a medium through which they can expand their vision and horizons, exploring what has held life together thus far and the thread that connects life to the possibility of something more than we sense in our bodies in the here and now. The piece which does this par excellence for me is Bach's chorale Come Sweet Death as performed by Accentus. In performance, the voices stretch each chord beyond, almost, what is tolerable - the wait for the resolution of each dissonance brings you closer and closer to the place where the boundaries between what is known and what is unknown yet undeniably present blur...well you just have to listen for yourself really! The chorale is sung here by an un-named choir and is first performed straight through here
John Taverner's music has a similar kind of appeal, if that is the right word. It conveys us to places where it is not only possible but desirable to ask the ultimate questions about existence. And then it takes you further into the uncharted territory where, for odd moments, the boundaries between time and timelessness are blurred and you are brought to a place were you are almost no longer conscious of your own existence. It is this quality that marks him out as one of Britain's great composers and also which explains why he himself became frustrated with more conventional forms of music which he felt did not convey spiritual truth in this way.