About this Recording
8.554388 - TAVENER: Protecting Veil / In Alium

John Tavener (b. 1944)
The Protecting Veil; In Alium

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 deuxième Vertu:

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 soprano voice.

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' resolves.

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 God.

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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