Librettist, counsellor, ‘spiritual mother’ and even commercial adviser, Mother Thekla exerted a remarkable influence over composer Sir John Tavener.
Mother Thekla’s choice to become a nun was a sudden one. Born Marina Sharf in Kilslovodsk, Russia, she grew up in Richmond, Surrey and graduated from Cambridge University in 1940. Following the Second World War, she worked as a teacher and became head of English at Bedford Girls’ School. After taking vows, Thekla devoted herself to a secluded life in the Orthodox Monastery of the Assumption, which she founded in North Yorkshire in 1971.
Thekla’s religious devotion had a huge impact on Tavener, originally a Presbyterian who converted to the Orthodox Church in 1977. Her short book The Life Of St Mary Of Egypt (1974) caught the composer’s interest and was the basis of his second opera, Mary of Egypt (1992). During the years after the death of Tavener’s mother in 1985, Thekla counselled him through his fear of never being able to compose again. Following this lull, Thekler advised him to write more commercially, a suggestion that led to his popular work, The Protecting Veil (1987).
As the composer’s predominant religious guide, Thekla supplied the words for Tavener’s Song for Athene (1993), which featured in the funeral of Princess Diana, The Apocalypse (1993), Fall And Resurrection (1999), We Shall See Him As He Is (1993), and Let Us Begin Again (1995) amongst others. He claimed he could not imagine working with another librettist: “It’s one of those very special relationships in life, which will not ever happen again.”
Tavener dedicated The Music Of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (1999) to Mother Thekla. She “helped me put my music and my life together”, he said.