Tavener first came to wide public attention with his composition The Whale (1968), which employs a collage of prerecorded tape, amplified percussion, and chorus. After a comparatively dry period in the 1970s, Tavener's work flourished during the 1980s and 90s, when he produced a broad range of compositions. Among his best-known works are Orthodox Vigil Service (1984), for chorus and handbells; The Protecting Veil, for cello, and Akathist of Thanksgiving, for soloists, chorus, strings, and timpini, (both: 1987); the operatic Mary of Egypt (1991); the choral Song for Athene (1993), played at the funeral of Princess Diana; and Total Eclipse (1999), a cantata scored for vocal soloists, boys' choir, baroque instruments, brass, Tibetan bowls, and timpani. The Veil of the Temple (2003) is a seven-hour musical vigil that draws on Christian traditions of the East and West and is performed by a large chorus, vocal soloists, organ, brass and percussion ensembles, Tibetan horn, temple bowls, and Indian harmonium. Tavener was knighted in 2000.
See his The Music of Silence—A Composer's Testament (2000); Glimpses of Paradise (documentary film dir. by G. Haydon, 1992); G. Haydon, John Tavener—Glimpses of Paradise (1995).
The Whale comprises three main sections: Opening (Biblical Narrative), Melodrama and Pantomime (Storm) and Prayer (In the belly of the Whale). It was premiered at a Proms concert on 1 August, 1969, with the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton with soloists Anna Reynolds, Raimund Herincx, Alvar Liddell and the composer playing pipe and hammond organs. In July 1970, The Whale was recorded in Islington, London with the same musicians. It was released as an album by The Beatles' Apple Records label later that year.
The album was re-released in the mid-1970s on Ringo Starr's label, Ring'O Records, with a different cover.