Sir John Tavener was the first and only classical composer ever signed to Apple Records. Like every other artist on the ill-fated label (save The Beatles themselves), his tenure would be brief. But young John Tavener fared better than many of his fellow Apple artists. He even managed to get a second album out before the label imploded.
The Beatles acted as Apple’s A & R department for a short time, and they all had pet projects. Paul was working closely with Badfinger, George was busy producing Jackie Lomax, and John was focused on Yoko. Ringo needed something to do, too, so he found a prospect of his own. By signing John Tavener to the label, Ringo inadvertantly became the Beatle who brought high culture to Apple.
Ringo’s appreciation of Tavener’s music must have been sincere. A few years after the dust had settled in the Apple business, Ringo started RingO Records. His first order of business was to re-release The Whale, Tavener’s Apple debut.
In 1968, there was no “Sir” appended to John Tavener’s name. He was just trying to get noticed with The Whale, his musical version of the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale. The premiere was at the landmark debut of the London Sinfonietta, a huge event which helped to put him on the cultural map.
Using the same musicians who had performed it onstage, Tavener entered the studios to record The Whale. Apparently it sold well, because in 1971 Apple released Tavener’s second album, Celtic Requiem. The two albums went out of print when Apple folded, and would be unavailable for the next 40 years. Capitol EMI are now reissuing these long-lost recordings on CD, for the first time ever.
The Whale and Celtic Requiem have been combined on one disc, which
is nice. The eight-part composition “The Whale” comes first. The piece is considered a dramatic cantata, a form similar to light opera. The story is told through music and song, but not at the intense level of a full production like The Ring.
Celtic Requiem is important because it is the first Tavener album to be devoted exclusively to religious compositions, which would dominate his work in later years. It is the music he is most identified with as a composer, and the work that lead to his knighthood, in 2000.
Celtic Requiem’s title piece is a three-part, 22-minute exploration of deep emotion. The remaining two tracks are “Nomine Jesu,” and “Coplas.” Both are solemn, mysterious, even frightening at times. The intent seems to be to evoke thoughts of the hereafter and the glories of the deities.
Releasing the music of John Tavener to a public who were expecting something more in line with the Top 40 was a huge risk for Apple. Sir John Tavener’s fame, fortune, and knighthood came to him many years later, but it says a lot that a musician of his caliber was discovered and nurtured by The Beatles.
His compositions remain as powerful as they were forty years ago. Good music never gets old, and if you enjoy original compositions, this disc is worth looking into.