Sir John Tavener (1944 – 2013)


Stephen Layton enjoyed a long-standing association with the British composer, Sir John Tavener (1944-2013).  Spanning over 25 years, it would culminate in the realisation of what was to be, in Tavener's estimation, his magnum opus: "I regard The Veil of the Temple as the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed."

In 2000, Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple Church, and Stephen Layton, its then Director of Music and Organist, first met Tavener to discuss the possibility of a work which would place the Temple Church more firmly on the musical map.  "I had this feeling", says Layton, "that we needed to commission something absolutely extraordinary from Tavener, something that would be our calling card for the future - the thing, musically speaking, that people would remember as happening at the Temple Church."  The idea for the piece sprang from a remark that Tavener made to the Rev Robin Griffith-Jones and Stephen Layton: “I pointed out that at the time of the first millennium, AD1000, churches were full of all-night chanting, and said what a pity it was that modern Western music is so bereft of this,” Tavener recalled. “They took me seriously!”

For Layton, however, the seeds for the project unwittingly took root many years earlier.  As he recalls ...

"I can see him then, as though it were now, white suit, tall, uber-cool, giving strong instructions to us as to what he wanted as he strode the nave of Winchester Cathedral. I, a little eleven-year-old choir boy, sang with evangelical fervour the many names of Jesus Christ in numerous languages at the climax of what is still, for me, unquestionably one of Tavener's greatest and most durable pieces, 'Ultimos Ritos'.

Only ten years later, in 1987, as a student, I found myself conducting his 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc Dimittis' at Evensong in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. He appeared suddenly, unannounced, and disappeared just as quickly and silently afterwards. I was upset at the lack of contact after the service but, getting over it, the transformation into a 'quieter being', after ten years, struck me more.

Many years later, during 2002 and 2003 we would walk together through the Dorset countryside, always with his dog Leila. He would tell me of Fritz Schuon and Sufism, of his beliefs about the truths that unite and transcend different faiths. I listened with interest, but at that stage was actually much more anxious to get his approval for how we intended to stage the Veil of the Temple in all its extraordinary logistical complexity. Interestingly, he was not remotely controlling of the music. He just wanted me to do with the 900 pages as I saw and felt fit. He had a remarkable openness to how things could be interpreted - the conductor's dream.

As the first performance of the Veil of the Temple drew to an end at 5.30 on a fine June morning, I remember walking out of the Temple Church with him, the sounds of a Christian hymn and a Hindu chant combining and seeming to pour out of the church and into the Temple precincts and grounds, as did the singers and audience. This great piece of music is the testament of his strong personal feeling that mankind is all one and would do well to know it."


The Veil of the Temple - World Premiere (London)

Running to a Tolstoyan 850 pages of full score, and dealing with nothing less than the “Cosmic Ascent of Christ”, the complete work, requiring an All-Night Vigil, received its World Premiere at the Temple Church in 2003 (27 June and 4 July) as part of the City of London Festival.

The planning, rehearsal and execution of the monumental 800-page score was no mean feat, requiring the commisioning of a 274-page schematic "performance bible" charting every individual's part and location at any given moment during the piece.  Layton listened to every singer, classified the voices in several parameters, then systematically worked through the score, analysing its structure and assigning individual voices and spatial locations to each passage.  The performances involved a meticulous choreographing of shifting of choral positions around the church, as the audience was drawn ever closer into participants of the experience, developed by Layton, who took part as a boy in Tavener's early Celtic Requiem (1969) and Ultimos Ritos (1972), both of which made dramatic use of church spaces.

The audience packed the exquisite 13th-century building, tucked behind Fleet Street, but also enjoyed the all-night vigil al fresco on big screens that were erected in the surrounding Inns of Court.  

The reception by audience and critics alike was nothing short of exceptional:


"At the end, in a marvellous coup de théâtre, the choir led us out into the dawn to a joyful chant from the Hindu scriptures.  As I emerged, dazed and elated, I felt that I had just witnessed Tavener's masterpiece." Ivan Hewett (The Daily Telegraph)

"The conductor Stephen Layton has been involved closely with the work's three-year evolution, a collaboration that yielded an unfalteringly intuitive understanding of the musical, architectural, spiritual and logistical implications of the score ... John Tavener has brought into being a uniquely significant choral work of immense cumulative power: a glorious, transcendent achievement." Paul Conway (The Independent)

"The great beauty of this music and the extraordinary singing of the Choir of the Temple Church and the Holst Singers, tirelessly conducted by Stephen Layton and James Vivian, is what got me first. 

This is English choral singing at its best. With continual flexibility, singers and soloists assumed a range of styles, ranging from Byzantine to madrigal to Asian drone, all with mesmerizing splendor." Marc Swed (The Los Angeles Times)

"A request for no applause at the end saw the choir process out, receding from sight and sound, but not from the senses.  As I emerged blinking into the London dawn, Sir John and Lady Tavener asked me how I had enjoyed it. I had, but words alone seemed incapable of communicating how I felt and the effect it had on me." Nigel Chappelle (The Church Times)

"Stephen Layton, among the very best of England's stellar crop of choral conductors, is to be applauded for his superb work here." Tom Gibbs (Audiophile Audition)

USA Premiere

The complete (All-Night Vigil) work received its USA premiere on 24 July, 2004, at the Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre, New York.  Some, but not all, of the original 'cast' were on hand in what had been promised to be " ... a genuine New York happening." and an " ... extreme artistic experience ...": notably, the Choir of the Temple Church, London, and the soprano soloist, Patricia Rozario.


The Veil of the Temple - Concert versions 

Two abridged 'Concert' versions of The Veil of the Temple took place in the Temple Church, London, on 1 July 2003, and next year in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 1 August 2004, as part of the BBC Proms Concerts season.  Any doubts that the shortened version of Tavener's vast, seven-hour ritual would not provide the same overwhelming effect as the All-Night Vigils did in the incense-filled, candle-lit intimacies of Temple Church were soon dispelled.  As Ivan Hewitt writing for the Daily Telegraph noted after a packed-hall performance at the Royal Albert Hall, " ... the piece appeared stronger than ever ...", and " ... the iron grip of the form, and the telling economy of the music - and its amazing beauty - made it a profound experience ...".

World Premieres

All-Night Vigil (27 June and 4 July 2003)
Concert Version (1 July 2003)

The Temple Church, London

The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Holst Singers
Patricia Rozario (soprano)
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra

USA Performance

All-Night Vigil (24 July 2004)

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre, USA

The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Dessoff Choral Consortium
Patricia Rozario (soprano)

BBC Proms

Concert Version (1 August 2004)

Royal Albert Hall, London

The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Holst Singers
Patrizia Rozario (soprano)
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra



Sir John Tavener and The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge



In what would turn out to be one of Sir John Tavener's last public engagements, and his final collaboration with Stephen Layton, the composer attended in person to receive the Prize of European Church Music.  The prize was awarded to him after a concert performed by The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, under the direction of Layton, for the European Church Music Festival in Schwäbish Gmünd, Germany, on 25 July 2012.  The concert included several of Tavener's works, including Funeral Ikos and Song for Athene.  

Earlier that day, Sir John Tavener noted in an interview that, "'Music must have a sacred quality ... what cannot be sung, is not worth being written ...".  As one german critic wrote after the concert, "Does he [Tavener] often get the chance to hear his works being performed so perfectly?"


Remembering Sir John Tavener: Westminster Abbey, 11 June 2014

Article written by Keith Clarke in Classical Music magazine

"The music world paid tribute to Sir John Tavener on 11 June with a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, attended by The Prince of Wales. Sir John died on 12 November last year, aged 69.

Leading a service which mirrored the composer’s religious and personal leanings by including a gospel reading spoken and chanted in Greek, the Dean of Westminster, John Hall, was joined by Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain.

An address was given by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, who said Tavener’s music was truly unique. Tavener was never a remote or theoretical composer, said Sir Nicholas, speaking about the ‘sense of paradox between the extrovert strength of John’s personality and the other-worldly nature of his music. Perhaps this was one secret of his success.’ He was not, as some imagined him, an anonymous medieval monk or a hermit writing religious music, ‘but an opinionated, hugely attractive late 20th-century personality. It was perhaps the tension between the extrovert personality and the inner vision that powered so much of what he wrote.’

Simon Russell Beale gave a reading from Isaiah and Sir John’s daughter Theodora read Ninety-Nine Words for my Darling Children, Theodora, Sofia and Orlando.

Tavener’s music was celebrated with some superb performances. Counter-tenor Andrew Watts and oboist Nicholas Daniel presented The Hidden Face; Patricia Rozario sang Eternity’s Sunrise and Song of the Angel; and Steve Isserlis played Threnos. Stephen Layton conducted the Britten Sinfonia, which played ‘Mother of God, Here I stand’ from The Veil of the Temple.

Choral music was sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O’Donnell, and included They are all Gone into the World of Light; The Lamb; Funeral Ikos and a setting of The Lord’s Prayer.

Music of other composers included a Mozart’s Adagio played by violinist Thomas Gould and works by Bach played by assistant organist Martin Ford, who concluded the service with Messiaen’s rousing ‘Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne’ from L’Ascension.

A retiring collection was taken for the John Tavener Memorial Fund which is being set up to benefit creative and intellectual endeavours close to the composer’s heart."

Order of Service (PDF)



Stephen Layton's discography of Tavener's works comprises three current releases, and an upcoming re-issue of The Veil of the Temple under the Signum Classics label.

The first, in 2003 - The John Tavener Collection (Decca) - is a compilation of short, individual pieces combined with larger works such as The Protecting Veil, representing various aspects of John Tavener's "high holy minimalist" style. 

Stephen Layton - conductor
Natalie Clein - cello
The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Holst Singers
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra
Release date: November 21, 2003

The second, in 2004 - John Tavener Choral Music (Hyperion) - includes some astonishingly fresh new compositions from the composer, moving away from the Greek Orthodox rites which infused so much of his past output, and now embracing the metaphysical - in both text and musical response.  The collection contains 3 new works - Butterfly Dreams, Schuon Hymnen and Shûnya, all written in 2003, and no fewer than six première recordings.

Stephen Layton - conductor
Release date: September 2004

The third, in 2005 - The Veil of the Temple (RCA) - is a recording of the Concert version of the work, performed live and by the same forces as at the concerts in Temple Church (27-28 June 2003 and 4-5 July 2003).  Compared to the full version, which runs for about 480 minutes, this shortened version runs to 148' 17".  A 70-page booklet contains the full texts, translations where appropriate, and authoritative notes and commentaries, including some by Tavener himself.

Stephen Layton – conductor
Patricia Rozario – soprano
The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Holst Singers
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra
Release date : February 14, 2005

The latest Layton release of Tavener's music is a re-issue by Signum Classics of the original RCA (2005) recording of The Veil of the Temple.  As for the original RCA recording, the material is taken from the two live recordings of "The Veil of the Temple - All Night Vigil" from the premieres in 2003. The sections of the score were drawn together by Stephen Layton with the blessing of the composer and edited from the 7.1 surround sound recording of Sandy Lerner by Adrian Peacock and Mike Hatch.

Stephen Layton – conductor
Patricia Rozario – soprano
The Choir of the Temple Church, London
Holst Singers
Members of the English Chamber Orchestra
Release date : January 13, 2014