Composers Datebook®

Tavener's 'The Whale'

Composers Datebook - Jan. 24, 2024


On today’s date in 1968, London witnessed a double debut: the first concert of the London Sinfonietta, a chamber group that would go on to become one of Britain’s most famous new music ensembles, and, on its debut program, the premiere performance of The Whale, a dramatic cantata by John Tavener, who would go on to become one of Britain’s most famous contemporary composers.

The London Sinfonietta’s premiere attracted the attention of both the BBC, which broadcast the work that same year, and the Beatles, who released a recording of the work on their newly formed Apple label.

After Tavener’s religious conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith in 1977 and a near-death experience during surgery in 1990 to remove a tumor from his jaw, his music became ever more liturgical, even other-worldly, and was described as “mystic minimalism.”

In 1997, when the funeral service for Princess Diana was broadcast worldwide, it was Tavener’s serenely lyrical anthem Song for Athene that was chosen to accompany the princess’ coffin as it left Westminster Abbey.

Music Played in Today's Program

John Tavener (1944-2013) The Whale; London Sinfonietta and Chorus; David Atherton, cond. Capitol 98497

On This Day


  • 1712 - Frederick II the Great, King of Prussia, monarch, flutist and composer, in Berlin;

  • 1776 - German composer, author, conductor and music critic E. T. A. Hoffmann, in Königsberg;

  • 1913 - American composer Norman Dello Joio, in New York City;

  • 1918 - Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem, in Bern, Switzerland;

  • 1919 - American composer Leon Kirchner, in Brooklyn, N.Y.;


  • 1851 - Italian opera composer Gaspare Spontini, age 76, in Ancona, Italy;

  • 1883 - German opera composer Friedrich von Flotow, age 70, in Darmstadt;


  • 1835 - Bellini: opera "I Puritani," in Paris at the Théatre-Italien;

  • 1875 - Saint-Saëns: "Dance macabre" for orchestra, in Paris;

  • 1885 - Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Suite No. 3, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Jan.12);

  • 1895 - ; Ippolitov-Ivanov: “Caucasian Sketches” (Gregorian date: Feb. 5);

  • 1906 - Rachmaninoff: two one-act operas "The Miserly Knight" and "Francesca da Rimini" in Moscow at the Bolshoi Theater (Julian date: Jan.11);

  • 1922 - Walton: entertainment, "Façade," with Edith Sitwell reciting her poetry;

  • 1922 - Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, in Copenhagen, with composer conducting;

  • 1946 - Stravinsky: "Symphony in Three Movements," by New York Philharmonic, with the composer conducting; This work was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic-Society;

  • 1957 - Piston: Wind Quintet, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, by the Boston Woodwind Quintet;

  • 1959 - Shostakovich: operetta "Moscow, Cheryomushki," at the Moscow Operetta Theater;

  • 1981 - John Harbison: Violin Concerto, at Emmanuel Church in Boston, with soloist Rose Mary Harbison and the Emmanuel Chamber Orchestra, Craig Smith conducting;

  • 1991 - George Perle: Piano Concerto No. 1, with San Francisco Symphony conducted by David Zinman, with Richard Goode the soloist;


  • 1705 - Birthdate if the famous Italian castrato singer Carlo Farinelli (born Carlo Broschi), in Andria; His life is depicted in the 1994 film "Farinelli";

  • 1813 - The Royal Philharmonic Society in formed in London.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®