TAVENER: Protecting Veil / In Alium
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John Tavener (b. 1944)
The Protecting Veil;In Alium
John Tavener studied at the Royal Academy of Music with Sir LennoxBerkeley and David Lumsdaine. In 1968 his dramatic cantata The Whale tookits audience by storm and led to his music being recorded on The Beatles' Applelabel. Since that time Tavener has continued to show an originality of conceptand an intensely personal idiom, making his a voice quite separate from thoseof his contemporaries. Over the years, the contemplative side of his nature hasled him in more spiritual directions and his commitment to the Russian OrthodoxChurch, 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 conceivedespecially for performance in the symmetrical surroundings of London's RoyalAlbert Hall, so that the attention of the listener is divided equally betweenthe platform and the four loudspeakers, between the live and the recordedsounds. The work was stimulated by ?and its ethos is reflected in thefollowing lines from a poem by Charles Peguy, La Porche de myst?¿re de ladeuxi?¿me Vertu:
L'Esperance est une petite fille de rien du tout,
Qui est venue au monde le jour de
No?½l de l'annee derni?¿re.
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 conjunctionwith 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 useddeliberately for their innate quality of sound and should not be regarded asbeing in inverted commas. In the first section, the strings (with gongs andtam-tams in rhythmic canon) support and harmonize the soprano's slow, wide-rangingmelodic line, while the Hammond organ interjects laughter-like scatters ofnotes over a low-?¡lying counterpoint and the piano 'improvises' a series ofsporadic gestures, becoming ever more 'continuous and frenetic'. This textureis punctuated throughout by a section of recorded sounds: the noise of childrenplaying, a flamboyant piano solo (the 'childhood' theme) and lastly achildren's hymn, which, like the piano solo, arises from the closely-knitmaterial which forms the basis of the work as a whole. Towards the end of thesection, these three separate sounds are mixed and electronically distorted,until the soprano reaches the end of her solo. At this point, the recordedvoice of the soprano (singing against herself in four parts) overlaps to markthe beginning of the second section.
This is a palindrome for soprano and piano, consisting of brief episodesseparated by progressively longer ?and then shorter ?pauses, resolving at itscentral 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 byHammond organ and strings ?are irregularly overlaid on the second part of thepalindrome, in which expressive 'noises' are substituted for the sung phrases ofthe first part.
After a long pause, section three begins, echoing around the hall likebells in four-part canon from the four speakers. Each 'bell' sound consists ofa six-part chord, again produced by recorded super-positions of the singlesoprano voice.
The final section completes the palindromic effect of the work as awhole by returning to the mood of the opening, but with the recorded sopranohere replacing the string orchestra and the grand organ taking over from theHammond organ, alternating its more and more spasmodic entries with those ofthe piano. The music unfolds as a canon in sixteen parts, each set of entriesbeing introduced by bells and by glides on solo violins. Superimposedthroughout are the voices of four small children saying their prayers (inLatin, French, German and English) and gradually and successively fallingasleep. The canon dissolves into a thirty-two line slide (the soprano insixteen parts with herself, together with sixteen solo violins) and the workends as the last child falls asleep and the last of the thirty-two 'voices'resolves.
The Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God was instituted inthe Orthodox Church to commemorate her appearance in the Church at Vlachemi(Constantinople) in the early tenth century, possibly 902. At a time of gravedanger for the Greeks from Saracen invasion, Andrew, the holy fool, togetherwith 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 shelterover the Christians. Heartened by this vision, the Greeks withstood the Saracenassault and drove away the Saracen army. The Feast of the Protecting Veil iskept by the Orthodox Church in celebration of this event.
In The Protecting Veil Tavener strives to capture some of what heconsiders to be the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God. The cellorepresents the Mother of God and never stops singing throughout and one canthink of the strings as a gigantic extension of her unending song. The musicfalls into eight continuous sections and use is made of the eight Byzantinetones. Various Feasts inspired Tavener as he composed; the second, forinstance, is related to her birth, the third to the Annunciation, the fourth tothe Incarnation, the fifth (unaccompanied) to her lament at the foot of thecross, the sixth to the Resurrection, the seventh to her Dormition, and thefirst and last sections to her cosmic beauty and power over a shattered world. TheProtecting Veil ends with a musical evocation of the tears of the Mother ofGod.
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 duringthe composition. It is an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound, rather thanin 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 PromenadeConcerts. The first performance was given by Steven Isserlis and the BBCSymphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen on 4th September 1989 at theRoyal Albert Hall, London.
Adapted from notes by John Tavener