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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

The Veil of the Temple (All night vigil) (2002)
Commissioned by the Temple Music Trust
Work Notes
* strings to be used when the final section is played as a separate work
Chester Music Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
8 Hours 0 Minutes
SATB / boys’ choir
Aramaic, Church Slavonic, English, Greek, Sanskrit
Programme Note
John Tavener The Veil of the Temple (All night vigil) (2002)
The Veil of the Temple should ideally be played and sung in its original form. However I have devised a shortened version, which may be more readily performable, and I have given some idea of the gradual build-up of the all-night vigil.

Although The Veil of the Temple is mainly Christian, it attempts to remove the veils that hide the same basic truth of all authentic religions. It begins for instance in the words of the Sufis, and ends in the Hindu world, with the Upanishad Hymn. The ‘Logos’, that mysterious substance inside the Godhead, reveals itself in many forms, whether it be Christ, Krishna, or ‘the word made book’ in the form of the Koran.

The timeless victory of Good over Evil, or of Ohrmazd and Ahriman is a victory that is ontologically necessary because it results from the nature of Being itself. Darkness, even in winning, loses; and light, even in losing, wins. Such are the aspirations and metaphysics of The Veil of the Temple.


Preview the score
Cycles 1-3Cycle 4Cycle 5Cycle 6Cycles 7-8

  • Ensemble
    Choir of Temple Church / Holst Singers / English Chamber Orchestra
    Natalie Clein, cello (extracts only of The Protecting Veil and The Veil of the Temple)
    Stephen Layton
Contrary to modern attention spans is Tavener's The Veil of the Temple, a ritualistic six-hour, 850-page score that started around 11 p.m. on Saturday and finished about 5 a.m. with no intermission. Yet length wasn't an issue. The darkened Avery Fisher Hall was outfitted with ramps and platforms on which soloists and 10 choruses alternately performed with antiphonal effects, punctuated by sung Gospel readings from the hall's first tier and blasts from a huge Tibetan temple horn. Incense bowls were everywhere. Removed seats allowed the audience to listen horizontally. The unwritten rule this setting established was that you weren't here for the typical harmonic destinations promised by Beethoven. It's over when it's over. And behind Tavener's Eastern Orthodox influence are thick, Anglican harmonies that give his music extra heft. His contemplation of religious mysteries now translates into intriguingly unresolved chords - with more inner voices in the chords to go unresolved. I was converted within 30 minutes.
David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer,29/07/2004
A large and willing audience turned up and the vast majority stayed to the end, suggesting that people, especially the notable numbers of young people present, actively seek extreme artistic experiences. There are some striking aspects to the music, especially a restless refrain for male choristers in which the individual parts seem to veer out of sync, and some pungent choral episodes with block parallel harmonies spiked with disonant clusters. I have nothing but praise for the vocal soloists (especially the soprano Patricia Rozario) and the stalwart choristers from Temple Church in London and the Dessoff Choral Consortium (Kent Tritle, director). The accomplished and tireless conductor Stephen Layton could take breaks only during passages when solo singers recited gospels. The ending of the vigil was well worth the wait. After a celebratory final chorus, with no break for applause, a row of basses singing a jaunty Hindu chant led all the performers and the entire audience out the doors into the Lincoln Center courtyard where complimentary breakfast awaited. We mingled, ate bagels and watched the sun come up.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times,26/07/2004
It's not that Tavener has discovered some new voice - more that the familiar one was given a cogency I'd never heard before. The new piece is above all a masterpiece of pacing, beginning in a modest way with a handful of singers and instrumentalists, and building with inexorable control to a mighty climax with what seemed like hundreds of performers. Within the larger symmetry traced by the recurring pattern of the eight cycles were myriad small symmetries and recurrences. Expectancy was mingled with pleasurable recognition, as some particularly shapely or tender phrase came round again, slightly varied and augmented. The musical patterns were made more vividly evident by dramatic lighting… Much of the power of the piece lay in the combination of economy - laid end-to-end, the basic musical material would barely fill an hour - and amazing stylistic variety. At the end, in a marvellous coup de théâtre, the choir led us out into the dawn to a joyful chant from the Hindu scriptures. As I emerged, dazed and elated, I felt that I had just witnessed Tavener's masterpiece.
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,02/07/2003
It is a work that blurs the distinction between theatre and ritual, and listeners are encouraged to perambulate, so that, with an army of stewards marshalling performers … conductor Stephen Layton), auditorium and stage fuse into one bustling space. Its first gesture is pure theatre:(the) soprano walks through the church, a gauzy veil covering her from heard to foot. Eight times she appears, introducing each cycle with a brief but telling solo. At each appearance her veil recedes, dramatising the work’s founding text: “The Veil has become Light; there is no longer any veil”. Familiar elements of Tavener’s music abound: bells and smells, archaic chants and drones and Rozario’s ecstatic cantillations. But just as Tavener’s essentially Christian vision derives succour from non-Christan writings, so he imports such musical “exotica” as a thunderous Tibetan horn, the duduk (mixing oboe, clarinet and sax timbres) and harmonium, which accompany Rozario. Within Tavener’s deliberately restricted harmonic language, it succeeds. Were we congregation or audience? Probably both. Some, perhaps believers, stood at appropriate moments; for this wretched unbeliever, Tavener’s drama was symbolic, its religious framework purely metaphorical. No matter. Faced with the work’s messianic scale, the listener either succumbs, or rejects everything. As the music faded towards silence, the performers ... processed from the church out into the dawn light; one by one, we joined them. No applause, rather the sense of having come through, moved, refreshed, conceivably renewed.”
Nick Kimberley, The Evening Standard,02/07/2003
The work progressed through its eight varied but thematically related cycles with the inevitability and building intensity of Byzantine ritual. The breaking of dawn coincided with the melismatic, ecstatic seventh cycle, while the final section provided an overwhelming climax of culmination and renewal. The chorale-like Upanishad Hymn, underpinned by Hindu chanting, filled the church with a colossal, almost tangible mass of sound, the entire range of voices at full stretch augmented by five brass players and timpani. John Tavener has brought into being a uniquely significant choral work of immense cumulative power: a glorious, transcendent achievement.
Paul Conway, The Independent,02/07/2003
The evening began in a veil of mystery with a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, the 13th century mystical Sufi poet, sung in the outer round temple and out of sight by the soprano… and accompanied by a duduk. Then in the center of the church was the rousing sound of a huge Tibetan horn, calling us to prayer. Although Tavener's music often hints at Eastern religious traditions, particularly of India, it has always been intensely Orthodox Christian in its essence. That is still true, but in the program Tavener writes that he now believes the one way to apprehend the vastness of God is to witness many religious traditions. Each of the first seven cycles proceeds with a sequence of biblical and Gnostic texts and with the occasional outside insertion, such as the opening Rumi… Small at first, the musical forces grew larger throughout the night, as the first seven cycles got progressively longer. By the seventh cycle, which began around 3, the work reached a point of tremendous, even overwhelming grandeur… If Tavener could top that, I thought, he just might have a vision of paradise in store. Here the veil is lifted, and East and West become one. As the stained-glass windows started to become illuminated, Rosario, (the soprano) who had introduced each cycle, heroically intoned dazzling high Cs. The organ thundered. ... There was braying of brass, a final majestic "OM" and the Sanskrit "Tat tvam asi" (Thou art that), which the late mythologist Joseph Campbell often invoked to symbolize universal spiritual implications.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,30/06/2003
ONCE in a while even the most heartless hack must cast aside professional scepticism and gush like a groupie….To call this musical extravaganza an epic is a little like calling the Sahara sandy….Yet from first to last the piece was mesmerising. What he (Tavener) does here is to present the same basic cycle of liturgical events no fewer than eight times. But with each cycle the texts become more intricate, the modes more elaborate, the harmonies richer, the choral forces bigger, and — if you see things the way Tavener does — the journey to the centre of the Cosmos ever closer to reaching its goal. Finally, the “veil of the temple” itself, the final division between earthly and heavenly things, is torn away. All religions and human distinctions are dissolved; all creation becomes as one with its creator…this is definitely Tavener’s masterpiece. As the hours tick by, and the Greek incense wafts more thickly, and more and more candles are lit, and the recurring chants are cloaked in ever more complex ornaments, the piece develops a primordial force that I found at first enrapturing, then almost terrifying in its fervour.Indeed, I can imagine no more ferocious evocation of the Last Trump than the astonishing eight whams on the tam-tam, accompanied by blasts of Tibetan horn and organ, with which Tavener heralds the climactic eighth cycle.
Richard Morrison, The Times,30/06/2003
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