John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple

It’s not many new artistic works that can claim their very own web site, but John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple can. This gigantic work, lasting seven hours, was commissioned by the Temple Church in London and was first performed in June 2003 as an all night ritual/vigil that began at 10:00 PM and ended at 5:00 AM. It is loosely based on the all-night vigils of the Orthodox church (the Great Vigil of Easter is the last remaining such service in the Western church) and consists of sung prayers, chanted scriptural readings, vocal and choral commentaries. (Compare this work to a trifle such as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which lasts only about five hours!) The general consensus is that The Veil of the Temple is John Tavener’s masterpiece.

The musical structure is quite remarkable. The work is in eight “cycles”, the first of which begins on the note C. Each succeeding cycle moves up one diatonic step (C,D,E,F,G,A,B), finally ending on C the octave above. The music of the first cycle is uncomplicated, with each succeeding cycle using the same musical material, but becoming ever more complex, until the eighth cycle introduces new material and the “veil of the temple” is drawn aside and humankind is drawn to a new level of understanding with God. The texts are drawn from all of the world’s great religions (and a few obscure ones) and sung in English, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Sanskrit, and who knows what else. The work has a highly unconventional ending, with a men’s chorus sining a jaunty Hindu chant leading the audience out of the church into the dawn.

The BBC Proms 2004 concert on August 1st gave a “concise concert version” lasting a mere 2 1/2 hours. The broadcast was carried on the BBC Radio 3 Internet stream, so I was able to hear it live. Despite some choppiness in my broadband connection that afternoon, The Veil of the Temple was colossal. The music has all of Tavener’s bag of tricks: drones, repetition, musical stasis. But the overall effect was ultimately overwhelming. The demands on performers and audience (particularly for the complete version) is astonishing. Supposedly there was a computer-generated database to keep track of where all of the performers were at any given point in the music for the premiere performances at the Temple Church.

Keep an eye out for this piece; I want to hear it live sometime. (Sorry to say, I missed the NYC premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in late July.) It is definitely an “event.” I suspect that an audio recording or DVD video will be forthcoming.