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Signum Classics is proud to re-release the landmark recording of Sir John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple at the start of what would have been Tavener’s 70th year.
This double album captures the concert-version of this epic 8-hour work, composed to last through the night until dawn in the manner of the grand vigils of the Orthodox Church. Combining the psalms of a number of different religious, Tavener skillfully blends together a work that is truly all-encompasing in its scale and spiritual fervour.
'I regard The Veil of the Temple as the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed' (Sir John Tavener)
The performance of The Veil is a musical journey using voices and instruments. Performance takes place at night in a sacred space, and the object of the journey is to make effective a heightened state of being of the listener through a symbolic unveiling from darkness towards light.
The soul’s journey is to move from the existential darkness of temporal duration—time—towards the Glory of the divine instantaneity, the ever-abiding light of the Eternal. It is also, for the symbolic themes are threaded and interwoven throughout the music’s unfolding, at the beginning in the absence of light, a waiting at the tomb of Christ for the Light of the Resurrection.
The listener should be aware at the outset of two features of the conception of The Veil which act as important non-auditory aspects of the music’s performance. The first feature might be said to form the seminal idea (archetype) of the whole work. It is the idea that any claim to an exclusive possession of Truth by any sacred tradition is equivalent to placing a limitation of the infinitude of the Divine which must, by definition, encompass everything. Whatever symbols, words or characterisation used to define or express the nature of God and His relationship to man must, in the final analysis, be seen inevitably as an accommodation to man’s earthly state. In order to embrace the infinitude of God, all forms have to be shattered—even that of The Veil. In the religious context of the music this means all models of a manifest Temple of Jerusalem must finally be discarded in the Face of the Divine Presence.
The second non-auditory aspect of The Veil’s conception is closely related to the first, and underscores the whole work. God is nothing, in the sense that God is no thing. In the last twenty minutes of the work the awakened soul has moved from darkness to light until a point is reached, with the intensification of the light, that there is a sudden explosion of light. This is the rending of the Veil.
Some indication of the depth and complexity of the symbolic resonances at the climax of The Veil can be gauged by recalling the following themes, which, in varying degrees of intensity, are underwritten by the music of the eighth cycle: The Goal of the Journey; Totality of Light; The Light of the Resurrection; The Rending of the Veil of the Temple; Destruction of the old order—the exclusivity of the various differing religions; Destruction of any manifest structure of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem through the realisation of the greater spiritual and metaphysical model of the Temple within; Realisation of Self.
The soprano represents Mary Magdalen, the prostitute, an outcast, the painfully distorted figure of ‘love’ that is utterly unlovely. But this is the first person to see Jesus on Easter Day, for she loved him utterly.
Mary Magdalen is surely the mirror opposite of Mary Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Jesus and so mother of God? The Blessed Virgin is the mystic tongs that carried the mystic coal. She is the bridge between heaven and earth, humanity and God.
The soprano is heavily veiled in illusion at The Veil’s start; unveiled before total beauty at the end, and aware of her passage from Illusion to Supreme Reality. She has attained the unsurpassed Wisdom which she represented, in her own person, for the Gnostic Christians of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
According to The Gospel of Philip (late 2nd century), ‘The Wisdom that is called barren is the mother of the angels and the companion of the Saviour. The Saviour loved Mary Magdalen more than all the disciples … The other disciples said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? If a blind man and one who sees are both together in the darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and the blind will remain in darkness.”’
The soprano appears and disappears in different guises; she is lovely but elusive. For the power that draws us out of illusion towards reality is love. Tavener uses beauty—the beauty of his music itself—to draw us out of the illusions that infect us into the light of love.
Tavener wrote to Layton in 2002: The soprano ‘is in one sense always Mary Magdalen, on a journey towards the beloved. She is the bridge between earth and Heaven. Certain esoteric Coptic scriptures speak of Mary Magdalen as the Divine Friend of Christ. They speak of her following him everywhere, and say that she embraces sacred nudity after his death and resurrection, as did St Mary of Egypt and the Hindu saint Lalla Yogishwari after her.
‘Human personifications of the Divine Friend occur in every religion and Mary Magdalen combines the principles of Eve and Mary i.e cosmic mystery solitude—nudity and levitation by the angels.’
The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me, a sinner’ recurs throughout The Veil. It is an ancient Orthodox prayer, to be said over and over again. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes: ‘To begin with, the Jesus Prayer is an oral prayer like any other. The attentive repetition of the Prayer often proves a hard and exhausting task. In course of time the Prayer becomes more inward. The Prayer gradually acquires a rhythm of its own, at time singing within us almost spontaneously, “a small murmuring stream”. Finally the Prayer enters into the heart, dominating the entire personality. Its rhythm is identified more and more closely with the movement of the heart.’ The Jesus Prayer provides the heart-beat of The Veil.
Te re rem
In Orthodox psalmody, each ode (or sequence of verses) is sung to a melody that stands at its head in the liturgical psalter. This melody may be sung in syllables such as ‘tererem’, ‘nananu’ and suchlike that form no known words, in a passage known as a krateema. Some say a krateema is an expression of divine ecstasy, and that is how Tavener has understood it.
Note for Cycle VIII
Maranatha. – 1 Corinthians 16.22 (‘Our Lord, come’ or ‘Our Lord has come’ in Aramaic, the language of Jesus’ first followers)
‘Awake, thou, that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.’ – Ephesians 5.14
These are acclamations from the earliest years of the Church. ‘Awake, thou that sleepest’ was probably used at Baptism, ‘Maranatha’ at the Eucharist. The Book of Revelation ends with a translation of ‘Maranatha’ in the dialogue between Christ and his church:
‘Surely I come quickly.’ ‘Even so: come, Lord Jesus.’ – Revelation 22.20
‘Who will defend the Holy Temple?’
On 18 March 1228 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II crowned himself King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Frederick valued and studied Islam; he launched a dialogue with Islamic leaders. For the established forces in the Holy Land, not least the Knights Templar, this was almost apostasy. Their horror is represented in the story of the Knight’s appearance on 18 March and his sad question, ‘Who will defend the Holy Temple?’
In The Veil, the reply of the Knights changes: from ignorance and fear into a recognition that the Holy Temple embraces more than just themselves.
The Choirs in Cycle VIII
In the performance of Cycle VIII the audience, in the Chancel of the Temple Church, was surrounded by sound. The Holst Singers sang inwards, standing against the north, east and south walls of the Church. The choirmen of the Temple Church sang in the Round, at the Church’s west end, among the knights’ tombs. The instrumentalists played on a platform in the centre of the Chancel.
Tavener wrote to Layton in 2002: ‘Upanishad Hymn—it is (will be, I think) a “magnificent” primordial thing. It is a massive chorale-like outburst with Hindu chanting in the centre which “represents” God.
‘It is monolithic, massive and my answer to Parry’s Jerusalem! The Hindu text from the Upanishads translates into magnificent rolling English, the central chanting is in Sanskrit … A celebration of God and of the Round church but it is most certainly not fast! Overwhelming as the Horns “whoop” up to top F’s and G’s representing Indian “Elephants”! Primordial as well.’
Tat tvam asi
In the Chhandogya Upanishad, Book VI, the sage Uddalaka teaches his son Shvetaketu. In three successive dialogues the teacher concludes, ‘Tat tvam asi’, ‘That You Are’. This is the first:
‘If someone hacked at the root of this mighty tree, my dear, it would live, but bleed; if someone hacked at it in the middle, it would live, but bleed; if someone hacked at the top, it would live, but bleed. Being pervaded by life, by self it stands, drinking in moisture, flourishing.
‘If life leaves one of its branches, that branch withers; if it leaves a second, that withers; if it leaves a third, that withers; if it leaves the entire tree, the entire tree withers.
‘Understand that this is the same, my dear. Separated from life, it dies, but life does not die. That subtle stuff, it is the self of everything. It is truth. It is the self. That You Are, Shvetaketu.’ (VI.11)
The Peace Chant: Shántih
Púrnam, translated here ‘full’, could as well be translated ‘abundant’ or (in this context) ‘infinite’. This is a peace chant, a Shántih: verses chanted before the opening of an Upanishad. This particular Shántih is used with all the upanishads associated with the White Yajur-Veda.
Brian Keeble © 2013
In the music of The Veil and its setting, East meets West and they become one. Tavener combines western music with the insights and intensity of the Orthodox East; and the Temple Church, almost alone of all the churches in the English-speaking world, brings together the clean lines of a gothic masterpiece and the splendour of Jerusalem.
Tavener, however, has looked across chasms wider and deeper than those which divide the Christendom of East and West. Between Christendom and the realm of Islam there is a broadening gulf of suspicion, fear and hostility. The Temple Church was itself built at a time of such division. The Church was built on one side of the divide and was designed to deepen and defend it. In the London Temple we are the heirs of that history.
We know, then, only too well the enmities of the past. All the more precious, therefore, will be any bridge that we can throw from the Temple across the chasms that divide the great faiths of the world. Tavener has his own distinctive vision of the links between them. This vision shapes The Veil from the first bars to the last.
As The Veil begins, a soprano sings in the darkening Church the love-song that the great Sufi mystic Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad I Rumi sang to his God:
Oh what was there in that candle’s light?
Oh, you struck fire in my heart and I have been consumed.
Oh friend, come quickly.
From the face of the heart, the Divine has appeared.
Nothing can help me but that beauty.
Once, at dawn, my heart was shattered by your sweet odour!
My soul heard something from your soul.
When my heart drank water from your spring it drowned in you,
and was borne away in its current.
Tavener was a composer whose music speaks to the spiritual side of all his listeners. He wrote The Veil for those of any faith or of none. He said of The Veil:
‘It is a journey towards God; and if you see God as the centre, as you must, then it is a journey from the periphery to God … As the Koran writes God is beautiful and he loves beauty, or as Augustine has written Beauty so ancient and so new, or as Dostoyevsky says It is only through beauty that the world can be saved—so I tried to create as much beauty of sound, beauty of form, beauty of text, beauty of rhythm, beauty of melodic line as I possibly could, using Hindu rhythms, Sufi rhythms, aspects of chant from various traditions. So I hope that the work will be Christian but universalist. I tried to make it as universalist as possible—I didn’t try to make it, it came from inside me.’
Tavener recalls being visited by an Apache Indian medicine man: ‘He talked about the Great Spirit, that’s how they refer to God. And he sat down on the ground and drew a circle with radii all leading to the centre. This, I think, must be the purpose of all that I call sacred art.’
‘The Veil of the Temple’, wrote Tavener, ‘is a work of divine imagination and sacred history. It takes place at night—waiting for the withdrawal of night and the coming of dawn—in the very place in fact where the night sentries keep watch on the walls of the Temple and the Holy Sepulchre of Christ.’
The Temple Church, built 1185–1240, is one of London’s most historic and beautiful churches. The Veil of the Temple brings to life the history and meaning of the Temple’s famous Round Church, a gothic reading of the most sacred place in the medieval world: the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, site of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Tavener himself has spoken of the ethos of the Temple in Jerusalem, which ‘opposes the violations and profanities of history.’ His music draws out the most poignant of contrasts: between the bitterness that still ravages Jerusalem, and the promise that this Holy City holds out to all humanity.
When the Templars built their Round Church in London, they were recreating the sanctity of the Holy Sepulchre itself. No wonder, then, that great knights were buried in the Round Church. For these knights were, to the medieval mind, buried in Jerusalem. The Church is famous for their effigies. Several among them show the knight with legs crossed, eyes open and sword half-drawn.
These ‘soldiers of Christ’ are waiting for the last act of human history: when Christ summons his soldiers to battle, Satan’s army is destroyed outside Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. The final Easter will have come at last.
The Veil’s listeners are taken from darkness to light, from death to rebirth. Cycle VIII represents the eighth day of the week, and so the first day of the new week and new creation. In the rising light of dawn, the tomb of Christ has become the Easter Garden.
Mary Magdalen has come to the tomb of Jesus and has found it empty. She turns; and sees Jesus. The vast sound of The Veil’s music stops. Everything is still. And Mary sings her single word of recognition, ‘Ravouni’, ‘Master’.
Tavener has written: ‘I offer The Veil as a poor man’s mite to the Temple Church, and perhaps ultimately to the Western Church as a whole. It may be only through the world of the divine imagination that any kind of unity can come about. But it is uncharted territory, and I can know nothing about its future, save that I have tried to reinstate the sacred, the natural in the divine world, which is the source and consummation of all sacred art.
‘In a sense, The Veil is without beginning and without end, and it is a prayer, or perhaps it becomes a prayer, the sole meeting place of heaven and earth.’
From Illusion to Truth: The Veil of the Temple was torn in two
‘Before the doors of the Anteroom in the Temple there was hung a veil, of Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvellous skill. This mixture of materials had a significance of its own. The veil contained them as an image of all things. For in the scarlet, it seemed, was an allusion to fire, in the linen to earth, in the blue to the air and in the purple to the sea. In two cases the comparison lay in the colour. In the linen and purple it lay in the material’s origin; for one is produced by the earth and the other by the sea. On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of the heavens.’ (Josephus, Jewish historian, writing c AD 75)
‘Whoever swears by the Temple,’ said Jesus, ‘swears by him who lives in it.’ (Matthew 23.21) The Temple was the house of God. In Jesus’ day the Temple’s buildings covered 35 acres on a vast plateau, largely man-made, at the eastern edge of Jerusalem. To approach closer to God’s presence than was proper or permitted was to risk death.
‘There are ten degrees of holiness,’ we hear in the Mishnah, the collection of Temple laws and lore compiled 150 years or more after the Temple’s destruction. Holiness was at its greatest in the Temple, the centre of concentric circles of increasing intensity and power. Holiest of all was the Holy of Holies, ‘for none may enter therein except only the High Priest on the Day of Atonement at the time of the Temple service.’
The façade of the sanctuary, 150 feet high and wide, was sheathed with gold. It faced east, and was dazzling in the morning sun. We have heard Josephus’ account of the veil that stood at the entrance to the Anteroom to the Holy of Holies. Here the altar of incense was kept. The Anteroom was entered by the officiating priests twice daily for the rites of the Morning and Evening Sacrifice.
A second veil protected the Holy of Holies itself. The room was a pure cube. It was entered just once a year, on the Day of Atonement, by the high-priest alone: first with incense, then with the blood of a bull, then with the blood of a goat. The Day’s rituals atoned for the priests and the people, for the holy place and the altar itself. By the time of Jesus the ‘mercy-seat’ of God in the Holy of Holies, on which the blood had once been sprinkled, had long since been lost. The Holy of Holies was empty.
The Temple as a whole represented the created order. The materials of the veil united all the elements; its decoration represented the vault of heaven. To pass beyond the veil was to pass from earth to heaven.
It was to enter the court of God himself. And there the seer would see the truths of heaven: the plan, the faithfulness and the glory of God.
The Jewish philosopher Philo knew this well. He draws on it for his Platonised theology. ‘The highest, and in the truest sense the holy Temple of God is, as we must believe, the whole universe. Its sanctuary is the most sacred part of all existence: heaven itself. Its votive ornaments are the stars, its priests the angels.’ Philo dwells on the inner veil, dividing the Anteroom from the Holy of Holies. ‘In the universe, heaven is a palace of the highest sanctity, and earth is the outer region … The furnishings of the Anteroom represents the realities of heaven as far as they can be apprehended by the senses. Things in the Holy of Holies beyond the second veil, in heaven itself, are invisible; they are accessible to the mind alone.’
The Gospel of Mark: The Tearing of the Veil
Jesus was baptised in the Jordan by John. And immediately, coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn and the spirit like a dove descending on him. Right at the start of the gospel Jesus sees into the mysteries of heaven. They include his own commission: And there was a voice from heaven, ‘You are my beloved son, in you have I taken delight.’ (Mark 1.10-11)
At the story’s end the ‘heavens’ are parted again. Their mysteries are unveiled. All that divided the court of heaven from the mortal world is torn away; all the grades of holiness are undermined. For God’s plan, faithfulness and glory are now accessible to all: in the sight of Jesus’ death.
Here is an unveiling, an ‘apocalypse’ that confounds all categories and all expectation.
And at the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice. ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachthani’, which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ … And Jesus gave a great cry and breathed out his spirit. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15.33-4, 37-8)
Griffith-Jones, Robin (b?) © 2013
It was with some trepidation that I undertook the commission from The Temple Church to write a work lasting all through the night, until dawn. I have attended nineteen-hour vigils in monasteries in Greece, but these contained a conglomeration of Byzantine Chants, often anonymous, and never composed by one individual. The unity and structure in the music was achieved by strict adherence to the Byzantine system of eight tones, each representing a different spiritual state. Nevertheless, it was with the memory of such vigils that I began to write The Veil of the Temple. I decided early on to divide it into eight cycles, rather like a gigantic prayer wheel, each one ascending in pitch, and in Cycles I-VII with verses from St John’s Gospel at the centre.
The Veil of the Temple is an attempt to restore the sacred imagination. (The ancient Greek subtitle, To telos, means both ‘the end’ and ‘the beginning’.) It takes place at night, as we wait for the withdrawal of night and the coming of dawn; and, by its gradual Cosmic Rising, it attempts to bring about a transformation from the Old Temple to the New.
The Veil is a ‘Vigil’, not quite a liturgical ceremony. Through its eight cycles, gradually rising an octave in pitch, it attempts to reveal the mystery of the death and burial of Christ through his Rising. In creating man, God entrusted him with the task of completing the Temple, and himself becoming the Temple of God. This, anyway, is the aspiration.
In 2004 I made a version of The Veil of the Temple that would not be an all-night vigil, but rather a work that could exist as a concert, or indeed be performed in a church as a major part of Easter celebrations. So there are two versions now: the all-night vigil, which lasts seven hours, and the version on this CD that lasts some two and a half hours. Only Cycle II remains complete, but something of all the eight cycles remains, so it is possible for the listener to follow the progress from the extreme sparseness of Cycles I and II to the awesome grandeur of Cycles VI, VII and VIII. A Tibetan temple horn is used to mark the divisions of the first seven cycles, sounding from one to seven times in all. Two gospels are sung, one at the end of Cycle II, and the other at the end of Cycle VII. They are taken from the extraordinary last dialogue of Christ to his disciples recounted in St John’s Gospel.
The Veil of the Temple begins in the world of Islam, with the distant sound of a duduk and a female voice singing: ‘When my heart drank water from your spring, it drowned in you, and was borne away in its current,’ by the Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. The soprano represents both the Self (Atma), and Mary Magdalen as Apostola Apostolorum. (Indeed, in the Gnostic Gospel of St Philip, she is portrayed as Christ’s most intimate companion, and symbol of the divine Wisdom.) She reaches a total realisation of ‘self’ at the end of the last cycle, when she recognises Christ’s divinity.
The concept of The Veil is such that it unfolds over seven cycles, the eighth belonging to the day of eternity, which is finally ‘paradisial’—a musical image of the celestial Temple within.
The Divine Ascent through the Cycles
The music moves forward through the cycles with the relentlessness of Byzantine ritual, rising in glory throughout the Cosmic Ascent. It reaches a peak of intensity at the end of Cycle VII, which I hope will bring about some form of ‘transmutation’, turning the lead of the ‘old temple’ into the gold of the new. The musical procedures are close to the expansion of Indian ragas, leading as they do to a state of divine ecstasy. The Veil itself stands somewhere between the austere magisterial Byzantine ethos and that of the divine ecstasy of the Sufi or Hindu East.
Cycle VIII: The Eschatology
As I have said, I hope that the journey through the first seven cycles leads us to a peak of spiritual intensity. The Epistle from Romans at the end of Cycle VII speaks of eschatology: of the burial and resurrection into Christ. The awesome sound of the tam-tam, temple bowls, Tibetan horn, bells, and organ announce both the end and the beginning: ‘Ton eelion kreepsanda tas idias akteenas, kai to katapetasma tou naou dhiaragen’ (The sun hid its rays, and the veil of the Temple was rent from the top unto the bottom). It was necessary that Christ should open the shell that was the old temple. He had every right to do so, for ‘He was more ‘TRUE’ than it’. By this opening we are introduced into the Hindu world, as Mary Magdalen, representing the Self, sings in Sanskrit the words MAYA ATMA—a musical seesaw of reality and illusion.
My references to the Knights Templar that follow are symbolic. There is a rather wonderful legend concerning them, recalled by the eminent French Islamicist Henry Corbin. He tells that on 18 March, a knight of the Temple is seen to appear uttering the cry, ‘Who will defend the Holy Temple? Who will defend the Tomb of Christ?’ At this call, the entombed Templars come alive and stand up to answer, ‘No one! No one! The Temple is destroyed forever.’ At this point the music quotes Tristan, symbolic of both death and love, for death in love is divine love. Then the searingly beautiful words of St Symeon the New Theologian: ‘Night from my most sweet brother has estranged me, cutting Love’s uncut light.’
The silence of the Tomb—the destruction of the Old Temple—all prayers, all doxologies, all Gospels, all Hesychasm, all Epistles seem to stop. The giant prayer-wheel appears to halt. The whole building gradually becomes suffused with light: ‘As many of you who were baptised into Christ and have put on Christ. Alleluia.’ More Paschal texts are added, and the standing Templars now sing a different response: ‘No! No! The temple is not destroyed forever.’ Then ‘Dhefte lavete fos’ (Come and receive the Light of Christ) and ‘Fos Christou fenee pasi’ (The Light of Christ shines on all) are proclaimed, and the choirs all around the building answer with further Paschal texts as children sing, ‘It was early in the morning …’
The preceding cycles have led us, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, sometimes austerely with a Byzantine relentlessness—but where we have been led is not to the temple of this world, but to the celestial Temple, of which the earthly Jerusalem is the image.
Then the cosmic sounds cease, and Mary Magdalen, recognising the divinity of Christ, cries ‘Ravouni’ (Master). She has realised the Self, or Atma, within her, which activates an explosion into the Hindu world, as the basses begin changing in Sanskrit ‘Tat tvam asi’ (That I am). The Upanishad Hymn which follows introduces brass instruments and timpani as all the forces sing the opening of the Isa Upanishad: ‘Sink this universe in God.’ This is the culmination of The Veil of the Temple, because by writing The Veil I understood that no single religion can be exclusive any more. ‘The Veil has become Light,’ writes Frithjof Schuon; ‘there is no longer any veil.’ This tearing away of the Veil shows that all religions are, in a transcendent way, inwardly united beneath their exoteric forms.
Debts of Gratitude
I am deeply indebted to Mother Thekla, Father Ephrem, the late David Melling and Liadain Sherrard, for allowing me to use their translations of so many of the texts that appear in The Veil of The Temple. I thank Brian Keeble, for his encouragement and friendship; also I am grateful to Robin Griffith-Jones and Stephen Layton at the Temple Church for their daring commission. And to Frithjof Schuon, whose writings have so deeply inspired me, and in whose mystical presence, and under whose guidance, I live. Doctor Nasr has said so eloquently of him, ‘Schuon seems like the cosmic intellect itself impregnated by the energy of the divine grace surveying the whole of reality surrounding man and elucidating all the concerns of human existence in the light of sacred knowledge.’
Last and certainly not least, I thank my dear wife, Maryanna, who has supported me and nurtured me over the years. It cannot have been easy, for I cannot have been easy, and I owe her a debt of gratitude, not easily measured. The Veil of the Temple is dedicated to Frithjof Schuon, and to my guiding angel.
John Tavener © 2013