The Veil of the Temple

Written by: Matthew Waterhouse

John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple

Reflections on the North American première

New York, 24 July 2004

New York’s extremely secular Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center was turned into a sort of church on this Saturday night and Sunday morning for the American premiere of John Tavener’s all-night vigil The Veil of the Temple, all seven hours of it. Painted icons were displayed, and sensors were swung at intervals throughout the night. Only for the first half-hour did this seem slightly odd. The music – the word concert would be misleading – began at 10.30 p.m., running until well after five the next morning, and with the help of lighting effects, choreographed movements and the increasingly thick smells of incense, the hall, with its excellent acoustic, soon seemed a natural setting for a mystical experience.

The tiers were closed to the public, and over a third of the seats from the middle bank of the orchestra level had been removed to make room for a platform on which much of the singing and playing took place. There was an open space between this central platform and the stage where listeners could sit or lie if they chose. Some people had brought blankets and they slept. As there was a gong in the open area they must have experienced a few jolts during the night. There was an organ on the left of it, and an array of percussion behind it on the front-right of the stage.

People were provided with pillows. They were encouraged to move about, to come and go. The bar was open all night. After some hesitation people were happy to change seats and leave and come back. At first this was distracting to those of us trying to listen closely but it too became a part of the ambience. As the night moved forward and one began to listen with less concentration for periods of time, the music was always there as a painting is always there – even when you’re not looking at it.

The Veil of the Temple is divided into eight cycles, “like a gigantic prayer wheel,” says Tavener, the shortest half-an-hour long, the longest ninety minutes. The opening cycle is simple and stark and hushed. It opens with a solo soprano (the wondrous Patricia Rozario) singing words of the Sufi mystic Rumi, which is followed by texts from the psalms, the Lord’s Prayer in English, Greek and Church Slavonic, Hebrew words and passages from the Gospel of St John sung by a bass soloist. For the passages from St John the composer flapped his arms to indicate that we should stand, as is the tradition.

The range of texts is breathtaking. Tavener is most usually associated with the Greek Orthodox Church, but he is now moving beyond it. (The final words of The Veil are Hindu in origin.) Yet the result is by no means general-purpose, new-age kitsch. Each subsequent cycle builds on those that have gone before, and though many critics complain that there is not sufficient development in Tavener’s pieces, often not any, in The Veil there is copious augmentation of the repeated passages, an expansion of them, an opening up. Each cycle rises in pitch so
that the last is an octave higher than the first.

180 singers and 16 players are needed. The instrumentation
includes horns, trumpets, a trombone, a bass trombone, and some less-familiar instruments – a huge Tibetan temple horn, a Duduk, and temple bowls. The players, and the solo and choral singers were all superb. They sung and played everywhere in the hall, sometimes at its heart on the platform, sometimes from the stage, sometimes from behind, sometimes from above, sometimes, particularly towards the thrilling climax, from everywhere at once. A singer who had been centre-stage would
reappear only minutes later through a door on the third tier. The sheer logistics must have been nightmarish. One very effective sequence had women’s voices coming from the stage, meeting male voices coming from the back. By dawn, the hall was resounding with the majestic sounds of human voices and musical instruments in a great upswell of paradisal ecstasy.

It is, incidentally, a rare and fascinating experience to be allowed to walk around a concert hall during a performance, to change your seat, to sit on the floor. Hearing the sounds from new angles has a clarifying, freshening effect on the ear.

I believe The Veil of the Temple, grand as it undoubtedly is, is more interesting than mere spectacle, mere show-business of high accomplishment. It’s a truer, deeper work of art than
that. For years Tavener has driven orthodox music critics apoplectic with rage. He’s made clear on countless occasions what he’s trying to do and why his work rejects the western classical idea of development, of “fabricated complexity” (as he has said of Schoenberg) so that everyone who listens to his music understands in advance the soundworld and stylistic approach it encompasses. What is most astonishing, perhaps, is the sheer range of expression he’s found in this approach, or
rather, in his own words, heard by “listening to the silence.” That this kind of declaration is easily mocked says a lot about our time. As his friend, the late poet Kathleen Raine, has written, his “radical challenge to the secular materialism of the modern
west is total and uncompromising.” Without that conviction I do not think his music would necessarily collapse entirely but I do think it would be much reduced.

It is idle to try to reconcile the contradictions in Tavener’s music and sensibility – that he loves the ancient, anonymous music of Eastern civilisations while himself being a highly public figure, by choice or otherwise; that he draws on traditions which he is inevitably outside of, being a British composer of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. These things are as they are. His music was written now and is of now, not of any long distant past, linked though it is to those pasts and places. In one sense I would suggest he is the most (dread word!) ‘relevant’ composer now
working, in that his music is a response to, albeit a turning away from, the condition of the world in which we have to live. Unless by ‘modern’ one means only the sound of traffic jams, I can’t see the problem here.

Will his work live? Composers who have had severe detractors have survived. Britten was attacked, yet his position is now secure. (Incidentally, I feel that Tavener’s choice of poetic texts has been the most interesting since Britten’s, though of course his settings aim for a somewhat different impact.) Perhaps in the case of Tavener’s music survival is anyway beside the point. To the degree that he is drawing on very old traditions he is helping those traditions survive, and the survival of the traditional must be more important than that of any particular work, and the remembering of any particular artist. This idea is alien to modern Western expectations of ‘greatness’, but it’s been the way
of artists for thousands of years.

Tavener’s music moves people of any or no religious denomination. He himself has quoted Blake’s remark, “Jesus is the imagination.” It is on this imaginative, this visionary, this poetic level that Tavener moves. His work has nothing to do with what we know, little to do even with what we might ‘believe’, though that opens up all sorts of questions about what ‘belief’ actually is anyway. Tavener touches what we don’t know, and what he doesn’t claim to know either.

At 5.15 a.m. the performers paraded out of the hall onto the Lincoln Center plaza chanting an ecstatic Upanishad hymn, followed by Tavener and the rest of us. Only in the open air of dawn did the chanting cease. Then the tension loosened and applause broke out. Breakfast was served. The advertising had
used the biblical word ‘repast,’ with its whiff of exotica, but what was provided could scarcely have been more American, nor for that matter more fattening: jelly donuts, chocolate donuts, muffins, and bagels with cream cheese. Even this seemed somehow appropriate, a gradual release back into the quotidian world, mitigated partly by one’s own lack of sleep and by the eerie near-silence of a city which is almost never silent, the nearly-empty streets which are almost never empty.

Is The Veil of the Temple a masterpiece? It does seem, standing outside Lincoln Center at 5.30 in the morning in a state of exhausted elation, with a bagel in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, to have been a very remarkable, unrepeatable, unforgettable experience. There will be those who will argue
that nothing that draws so much on other traditions can possibly
be a masterpiece because it is not ‘original’ enough. Once again, one finds oneself in a morass of contradictions and questions, to which one can give no answers but only opinions. I might ask, for instance, why such a premium is put on ‘originality’, the assumption being that all great art involves the new, the throwing away of the old or at least the transmuting of the old into something, I suppose, novel in a sort of aural-cow-in-formaldehyde way. Tavener’s is a very distinctive, thoughtful and serious voice, something reflected in The Veil of the Temple, which seems very fresh to me, simultaneously steeped in tradition and genuinely original: not heard. It is one of the masterpieces of Tavener’s oeuvre and, yes, one of the great works of musical art.


Patricia Rozario (soprano)

The Choir of The Temple Church, London

Dessoff Choral Consortium

Members of The Dessoff Choirs, Amor Artis, Amuse, Canticum Sacrum, Cantori New York, Carddorion Vocal Ensemble, Choir of St Ignatius Loyola, New Amsterdam Singers, The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York

Dirk Montgomery Campbell (duduk)

Scott Detra & Nancianne Parrella (organ)

Joseph Gramley, Zachary Knight, Eric Poland, Christopher
Thompson & Haruka Fuji (percussion)

Roger Wendt, Bradley Gemeinhardt & Chad Yarborough (horns)

Kirk Ferguson (Tibetan horn / trombone)

Gareth Flowers & C. J. Cameriera (trumpets)

Dana Landis (bass trombone)

Ceri Sherlock – director

James Vivian – assistant conductor

Stephen Layton – conductor

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