John Tavener was born in Wembley, Middlesex. He went to Highgate School in North London. Another pupil there at the time was John Rutter. At school he studied piano, organ and composition and wrote music for the school orchestra. He also wrote music for the Presbyterian church where his family went and where his father was organist. In 1962 he went to the Royal College of Music where he studied the piano at first but then changed to composition. One of his early successes was a cantata called Cain and Abel which was performed by the London Bach Society. It was the performance of The Whale by the London Sinfonietta in 1968 that made him really famous. This work used collage, pre-recorded tape, amplified percussion and a chorus who used loudhailers. This kind of thing was very fashionable in the 1960s.
Another work written in 1968 was In Alium. It was performed at the Proms. It was an unusual concert: three works by living composers were played in the first half. The audience were asked to vote for which one they wanted to hear again after the interval. They chose In Alium.
Tavener became professor of composition at Trinity College. He continued to compose, although he often had difficulty finishing pieces. He was often worried that he might not be able to think of any new music. In 1977 he became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. This changed his life. His music was very religious. He married his second wife and had two children. He was also very ill with heart trouble and even died on the operating table in hospital, but he brought back to life by the doctors.
He made a very important friend, Mother Thekla. She was an 80 year-old nun in the Orthodox Church, and she gave John a lot of advice and encouragement in his life.
In 1989, his work The Protecting Veil was performed at the Proms. It was a work for cello and orchestra. The cellist was Steven Isserlis. This piece is one of the best known modern works for cello. He continued to write a lot of music. His Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1998. It was heard on television all over the world.
Tavener was knighted in 2000.
Tavener died on 12 November 2013 at his home in Child Okeford, Dorset from unknown causes, aged 69. Tavener suffered many health issues. He suffered two heart attack and had surgery to remove an intestinal tumor.