The Veil of the Temple
2002, 7hrs Chorus and orchestra/ensemble
Solo voice: Soprano | Chorus: SATB, Boys' choir
Orchestration: duduk | 3hn.2tpt.tbn+btbn | Tibetan horn | org.Indian harmonium
Languages: English, Greek, Hebrew, Church Slavonic, Sanskrit, Aramaic
Tavener considered The Veil of the Temple to be his greatest compositional achievement, and indeed it is the culmination of a lifetime of not only musical, but philosophical and spiritual enquiry. The seven-hour vigil, comprising eight cycles ‘like a gigantic prayer wheel,’ is neither liturgical nor concert music, and is to be performed overnight in a sacred space, though without emphasis on one theology over another. Written at the beginning of the new millennium, The Veil of the Temple is an expression of Tavener’s profound realisation that at the basis of all religions there exists no division, for they are inspired by the same ultimate truth. The various interpretations of this truth are the result of man’s need to relate it to the world around him, but as his environment necessarily differs from culture to culture, and as human nature tends toward the worldly, the differences between these interpretations have come to loom much larger than their common inspiration. The veil of the title refers to these obstructions, and in the eighth cycle they are pulled away to reveal the universal nature of faith.
Tavener approached the exposure of this concept through the eight cycles, each of which is longer than the last, its pitch higher, and the volume and scale of the performance increased until the close of the seventh cycle announces the rending of the veil, revealing to the listener the ecstasy of the universal divine. The solo soprano, representing Atman — the Hindu ‘self’, identical with the ultimate truth — and Mary Magdalene, travels through all eight cycles to the final realisation that the soul’s destination is identical with its origin, and that it is to here that it has striven to return throughout its earthly manifestation.
Though the work draws significantly on Christian liturgy and is heavily influenced by Orthodox vigil services and Byzantine music, it embraces with equal passion Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic and Native American dogmas and music. The structure of the cycles bears similarities to Eastern Orthodox tone systems — sets of melodies attached to specific liturgical practices — and at the centre of each are verses from St John’s Gospel. These relate, over the first seven cycles, Christ’s final dialogue with his disciples, in which he alludes to the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Pentecost and the Ascension. A cacophonous chorus of tam tam, temple bowls, Tibetan horn, bells, simantron and organ herald the close of the seventh cycle and the revelation of the eighth, in which the veil, or illusion of religious separation, becomes light and reveals the reality of spiritual unity. To quote Frithjof Schuon, an exponent of Universalism and the greatest influence on Tavener’s philosophy at the time, ‘The veil had become light — and indeed there is no longer any veil.’ By removing literalistic religious divisions and revealing their single source, the work seeks to restore some sense of the sacred to an increasingly secular society.
A shortened, concert version of The Veil of the Temple exists where the full work may not be performed, and at almost 3 hours, conveys as much as possible of the essence and rising intensity of the all-night vigil. Elements of the full work are also available for independent performance.