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ClassicsOnline Home » TAVENER: Protecting Veil / In Alium
John Tavener (b. 1944)
The Protecting Veil;
John Tavener studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir Lennox
Berkeley and David Lumsdaine. In 1968 his dramatic cantata The Whale took
its audience by storm and led to his music being recorded on The Beatles' Apple
label. Since that time Tavener has continued to show an originality of concept
and an intensely personal idiom, making his a voice quite separate from those
of his contemporaries. Over the years, the contemplative side of his nature has
led him in more spiritual directions and his commitment to the Russian Orthodox
Church, which he joined in 1977, is now evident in all his work.
In Alium, scored for soprano solo, string orchestra, organ, Hammond organ, piano,
percussion (gongs, tam-tams and bells) and four-track tape, was conceived
especially for performance in the symmetrical surroundings of London's Royal
Albert Hall, so that the attention of the listener is divided equally between
the platform and the four loudspeakers, between the live and the recorded
sounds. The work was stimulated by ?and its ethos is reflected in the
following lines from a poem by Charles Péguy, La Porche de mystère de la
L'Esperance est une petite fille de rien du tout,
Qui est venue au monde le jour de
Noël de l'année dernière.
C'est elle, cette petite qui entraine tout.
Car la foi ne voit que ce qui est.
Et elle elle voit ce qui sera.
La charit?n'aime que ce qui est.
Et elle elle aime ce qui sera.
(Hope is a little girl of no importance,
Who came into the world on Christmas Day last year.
It is she, this little one who carries along all.
Because faith sees only what is.
And she sees what will be.
Charity loves only what is.
And she loves what will be.')
These words are sung in the first part of the work and, in conjunction
with the Latin text Spem in alium nunquam habui, in the final section;
the two central motets are settings of the words Spem and In alium respectively.
The music is essentially 'soft and sugary' and the 'churchy' harmonies are used
deliberately for their innate quality of sound and should not be regarded as
being in inverted commas. In the first section, the strings (with gongs and
tam-tams in rhythmic canon) support and harmonize the soprano's slow, wide-ranging
melodic line, while the Hammond organ interjects laughter-like scatters of
notes over a low-lying counterpoint and the piano 'improvises' a series of
sporadic gestures, becoming ever more 'continuous and frenetic'. This texture
is punctuated throughout by a section of recorded sounds: the noise of children
playing, a flamboyant piano solo (the 'childhood' theme) and lastly a
children's hymn, which, like the piano solo, arises from the closely-knit
material which forms the basis of the work as a whole. Towards the end of the
section, these three separate sounds are mixed and electronically distorted,
until the soprano reaches the end of her solo. At this point, the recorded
voice of the soprano (singing against herself in four parts) overlaps to mark
the beginning of the second section.
This is a palindrome for soprano and piano, consisting of brief episodes
separated by progressively longer ?and then shorter ?pauses, resolving at its
central point on to the note A. From this moment, snatches of 'live' sounds ?
in which the soprano refers back to the 'childhood' theme, here accompanied by
Hammond organ and strings ?are irregularly overlaid on the second part of the
palindrome, in which expressive 'noises' are substituted for the sung phrases of
the first part.
After a long pause, section three begins, echoing around the hall like
bells in four-part canon from the four speakers. Each 'bell' sound consists of
a six-part chord, again produced by recorded super-positions of the single
The final section completes the palindromic effect of the work as a
whole by returning to the mood of the opening, but with the recorded soprano
here replacing the string orchestra and the grand organ taking over from the
Hammond organ, alternating its more and more spasmodic entries with those of
the piano. The music unfolds as a canon in sixteen parts, each set of entries
being introduced by bells and by glides on solo violins. Superimposed
throughout are the voices of four small children saying their prayers (in
Latin, French, German and English) and gradually and successively falling
asleep. The canon dissolves into a thirty-two line slide (the soprano in
sixteen parts with herself, together with sixteen solo violins) and the work
ends as the last child falls asleep and the last of the thirty-two 'voices'
The Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God was instituted in
the Orthodox Church to commemorate her appearance in the Church at Vlachemi
(Constantinople) in the early tenth century, possibly 902. At a time of grave
danger for the Greeks from Saracen invasion, Andrew, the holy fool, together
with his disciple Epiphanios, saw the Mother of God during an all-night vigil:
she was standing high above them in the air, surrounded by a host of saints.
She was praying earnestly and spreading out her Veil as a protective shelter
over the Christians. Heartened by this vision, the Greeks withstood the Saracen
assault and drove away the Saracen army. The Feast of the Protecting Veil is
kept by the Orthodox Church in celebration of this event.
In The Protecting Veil Tavener strives to capture some of what he
considers to be the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God. The cello
represents the Mother of God and never stops singing throughout and one can
think of the strings as a gigantic extension of her unending song. The music
falls into eight continuous sections and use is made of the eight Byzantine
tones. Various Feasts inspired Tavener as he composed; the second, for
instance, is related to her birth, the third to the Annunciation, the fourth to
the Incarnation, the fifth (unaccompanied) to her lament at the foot of the
cross, the sixth to the Resurrection, the seventh to her Dormition, and the
first and last sections to her cosmic beauty and power over a shattered world. The
Protecting Veil ends with a musical evocation of the tears of the Mother of
It is, however, perfectly possible to listen to The Protecting Veil
as 'pure' music but it may be helpful to know what was in Tavener's mind during
the composition. It is an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound, rather than
in wood, using the cellist as a brush. The music is highly stylised,
geometrically formed and meditative in character.
The Protecting Veil was commissioned by the BBC for the 1989 Promenade
Concerts. The first performance was given by Steven Isserlis and the BBC
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen on 4th September 1989 at the
Royal Albert Hall, London.
Adapted from notes by John Tavener
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TAVENER: Protecting Veil / In Alium