Sir John Tavener (1944-2013)

Born January 28, 1944 in Wembley, London.
Died November 12, 2013, in Child Okeford, United Kingdom.

The Protecting Veil

Composed: completed in 1988.
First performance: the 1989 Proms with the London Symphony Orchestra, cello soloist Steven Isserlis.
Instrumentation: solo cello with string orchestra (8 I violins, 8 II violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, 3 basses).
Duration: ~43 minutes.

Taverner received his musical training at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Sir Lennox Berkeley among others. His 1968 cantata The Whale, which is based on the Jonah myth, received considerable attention and was subsequently recorded on the Beatles’ record label. He then began teaching at Trinity College of Music, London. He claims to be a direct descendant of another composer named John Taverner (c. 1490 – October 18, 1545) who was the Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church, Oxford. The older Tavener was the subject of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Tavener.

In 1977 Tavener left the Roman Catholic church to join the Russian Orthodox church. The doctrines of his new church subsequently became a major influence on his music setting many of the writings of the church fathers. Tavener’s best known work is perhaps Song for Athene for a cappella choir which was played at the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. In 2000 Tavener was knighted for his services to music.

The Protecting Veil was at first a suggestion from cellist Steven Isserlis. Later the BBC commissioned it for performance during the 1989 Promenade (Proms) Concert season. The work is based on the Orthodox Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. This feast commemorates the myth that Mary appeared in the Church at Vlacherni (Constantinople) in the early tenth century. At that time the Greeks were being invaded. During an all night prayer vigil Mary appeared in the air above the altar along with several saints. She spread out her veil to protect the congregants. With her protection the Greeks were able to survive and drive away the invaders.

Tavener writes “I have tried to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God. The cello represents The Mother of God and never stops singing throughout. One can think of the strings as a gigantic extension of her unending song.”

The music is divided into eight continuous sections. Each section is based on one the eight Byzantine church tones or modes. Each section represents various feast days in Mary’s honor. In addition Tavener writes “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.”

1. The Protecting Veil
2. The Nativity of the Mother of God
3. The Annunciation
4. The Incarnation
5. The Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross (unaccompanied)
6. The Resurrection
7. The Dormition
8. The Protecting Veil

The Protecting Veil opens with the cello playing three ascending notes. We hear these notes echoed by the orchestra in a gradual crescendo.
The soloist plays almost continuously throughout the piece.

Tavener points out that “it is perfectly possible to listen to The Protecting Veil as ‘pure’ music but I think that it may be helpful if I recount what was in my mind during the composition. It is an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound, rather than in wood, and using the music of the cellist to paint rather than a brush.”