Tavener: The Veil of the Temple - World Première (Concert Review - The Tablet, 2003)

Dawn breaks over the Temple

Sir John Tavener’s latest work brings together East and West in a highly ambitious musical and spiritual epic.

On Friday last week at 10 p.m., just off Fleet Street in London, long after the lawyers of the Inner and Middle Temples had left for the weekend, 375 people settled into the Temple Church for the premiere of a seven-hour vigil lasting until dawn. Sir John Tavener's The Veil of the Temple is a massive gesture of sacred art cast in eight cycles whose broad overriding narrative is the passage of darkness to light. It calls upon the forces not only of the Temple Church Choir, but of the Holst Singers, whom I joined as an extra member.

The Veil is the result of an unusually daring commission by Robin Griffith-Jones, Master of the Temple Church, and Stephen Layton, its director of music and organist. Back in 2000 they first met Tavener to discuss the possibility of a work which would place the Temple Church more firmly on the musical map. "I had this feeling", says Layton, "that we needed to commission something absolutely extraordinary from Tavener, something that would be our calling card for the future - the thing, musically speaking, that people would remember as happening at the Temple Church." The history of the Temple Church is cleverly embedded in the work. Built by the Knights Templar, those military-monastic twelfth-century protectors of pilgrims to and from Jerusalem, its round church imitates the design of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and carries effigies of nine Templar knights. At the climax of the work, the effigies rise to fight Christ's battle. By this point, night has transformed into dawn, just as the soprano Patricia Rozario - symbolising Mary Magdalen - recognises the Resurrection of Christ with the cry "Rabbuni!" (Master). The choristers introduce the theme of renewal and youth, singing of the Resurrection as a simple children's round: "It was early in the morning on the first day of the week..."

Tavener sees the work as "Christian but universalist". The universalism was signalled by the variety of sounds: an Indian harmonium, three Tibetan temple bowls (which have appeared regularly in Tavener's recent works), a Tibetan horn, and a duduk, an Armenian double-reed instrument which sounded to my western ears like a haunting cross between the bagpipes and a saxophone.

The work begins with a Sufi love song, and Cycles 1 to 7 each contain a gospel setting, as well as Byzantine texts and the Lord's Prayer set in English, Greek and Church Slavonic. The final, eighth cycle culminates in the ecstatic Hindu Upanishad Hymn ("Sink this Universe in God") – a "massive, monolithic, primordial" climax with the full vocal forces surrounding the audience with a wash of sound. This hymn, overlaid in suitably cross-cultural fashion with a ripping brass fanfare, is what Tavener has referred to as "my answer to Parry's Jerusalem ". It dissolves unexpectedly into a peace chant, at which the performers process out of the church under a shower of rose petals. Add the ceremonial lighting of candles and the liberal burning of incense, and you have a heady mix of religion, music and dramatic ritual - an attempt, says Tavener, "to restore the sacred imagination". Cycles 1 to 7 follow broadly the same pattern in their progression through the various texts. Pivotal to the journey is the gradual expansion of material across the cycles, so that what appear to be fleeting, unformed musical glimpses in Cycle 1 coalesce into increasingly powerful statements: the radiant, close parallel harmonies of "You mantle yourself in light", the distantly luminous "What God is, we do not know", and the achingly beautiful "Our Father who art in Heaven" and "Mother of God, here I stand".

The trajectory towards realisation is underpinned by an upward step of key with each cycle -"rising in glory throughout the Cosmic Ascent", as Tavener puts it, leading to "a state of divine ecstasy" - but also by a meticulously choreographed shifting of choral positions around the church, drawing in the audience ever closer as participants of the experience and causing the entire fabric of the building to resonate. This component of movement was suggested by Tavener's manuscript, but was keenly developed by Layton, who took part as a boy in Tavener's early Celtic Requiem (1969) and Ultimos Ritos (1972), both of which made dramatic use of church spaces.

Layton listened to every singer, classified the voices in several parameters, then meticulously worked through the 800-page score, analysing its structure and assigning individual voices and spatial locations to each passage. A database was commissioned to hold and manipulate all the information. Only then could rehearsals be planned around the availability of individual singers. The database was used to generate personal rehearsal schedules and performance diaries, all viewable and updated online, as well as a 274-page schematic "performance bible", charting every individual's part and location at any given moment.

As with the music of his fellow "spiritual minimalists", Arvo P”rt and Henryk Grecki, Tavener's material for The Veil is often simple and repetitive, qualities that have frequently attracted criticism. But Layton's approach makes a feature of this quality: "If you go the extra 150 miles, and make everything supremely beautiful, even though it's so simple, that's how you arrive at this extra state: you go through the door, and you take people with you to the other side. It's only when you do things with a 'here-we-go-again' attitude that the music is scoffed at, I'm absolutely convinced of it."

Twelve anthems will be extracted from The Veil, which the Temple Church hopes will be rapidly absorbed into the church choir repertoire. A repeat performance was scheduled for last night, to be relayed to a crowd of up to 2,000 in the Inner Temple Garden. Meanwhile, further performances of the entire epic are under negotiation.

The Veil has been referred to as a Gesamtkunstwerk - a "complete artwork" -but this is to subject it to a scrutiny it could never withstand. The Veil is better seen as a multi-faceted, spiritual experience which carries monumental impact. Tavener may have been permitted the indulgence of his lifetime but the result is undeniably an extraordinary celebration of universality, a testament to human endeavour and spirit.

Edward Bhesania