The Protecting Veil

The Protecting Veil

1988, 43' Soloist and orchestra 

Solo instrument: Cello | Orchestration: str (min 8.8.6.6.3)

The title of this work is taken from one of the many possible English renderings of Pokrov (Church Slavonic) or Sképe (Greek), a feast celebrated each 1 October in the Orthodox Church. The numerous translations result from the words meaning simultaneously ‘protection’ and ‘veil’ or ‘mantle’, as the feast commemorates the protective apparition of Mary, Mother of God, to Andrew, a Holy Fool, and his disciple Epiphanios in the Church of St Mary of Blachernae in the early 10th century, in what was then Constantinople.

The Protecting Veil was written by Tavener with not only this episode but with the entire life and force of Mary in mind, and he stated that it was intended as a counterpart to the painted icons so central to Orthodox worship. The techniques and approach employed in creating these icons have remained largely unchanged throughout the church’s history, exemplifying its emphasis on the constancy of tradition in veneration. Tavener sought to create ‘a highly stylised, lyrical icon in sound’ as a celebration of Mary, or Theotokos, the name given her by the Greek Orthodox church that means literally ‘God-bearer’. Tavener represents her appearance to Andrew and Epiphanios, but also the most significant events of her life as honoured by other Orthodox feast days.

Andrew of Constantinople came to the Byzantine capital as the slave of a bodyguard to Emperor Leo VI. He later devoted himself to Christ by becoming a Holy Fool — a Christian who, through ostensibly insane, foolish or outrageous behaviour, attempts to renounce the material in favour of the spiritual; encourage others to remember Christ and do the same; and distance society in order to fully appreciate God. During an invasion of the city by Saracens, Andrew, his disciple Epiphanios and a small group kept a prayer vigil at the Church of St Mary of Blachernae, not far from the city gates. Several of her relics, including her robe, were kept here, and as the group prayed for deliverance, Mary appeared to them. Surrounded by angels and saints, she entered the church through its high domed ceiling and descended into a prayer of protection to Jesus Christ, tears streaming down her face for the suffering Christians. She then covered the assembled faithful with her protective mantle, and departed. The Saracens were driven back from the city gate and the crisis averted.

This miracle is illustrated by the first and last of the eight continuous sections of The Protecting Veil, in which the cello represents Mary and her ‘song’ or unending prayer for Christians. The further, enclosed six represent the Nativity of the Mother of God — her birth; the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of God’s son and earthly incarnation Jesus Christ; the Incarnation or birth of Jesus; the Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross, on his crucifixion; the Resurrection; and the Dormition, the ‘sleep’ or death of the Mother of God. Tavener made use of the eight Byzantine tone systems associated with these feasts.

The composer said that, while there is a definite subject matter to the work, it is equally possible to listen to it as ‘pure’ music, and he felt that the popularity of the work is inseparable from its celebration of the feminine. Tavener reiterated many times the profound importance in his life of the feminine and of the women who embodied it, many of whom acted as catalysing forces. Tavener’s surrounding experiences and beliefs were often been associated with the term ‘the Eternal Feminine’, intimating as it does the forces of creation, nurture and sustenance. Though the concept is not the exclusive preserve of women, in a world long dominated by patriarchy, the aggressive egoism once essential to the survival and advancement of a species or race has outstripped necessity at the expense of the more altruistic, feminine tendencies responsible for the wellbeing of the whole. In Tavener’s view, this emphasis on progress and innovation has contributed to the gradual divergence of Western society from the anchoring effects of tradition and recognition of human unity.