The Protecting Veil

John Tavener

The Protecting Veil

About this work

Raised a Protestant, Tavener converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion in 1977 and has composed many works relating to the teachings and feast days of that faith. The Protecting Veil is one such composition, written for the observance of events concerning the invasion of Greece by Saracens, around 902. The Blessed Mother was said to have appeared and spread her "protecting veil" over Christians in Constantinople, sheltering them from attack and ultimately inspiring defeat of the Muslim invaders.

This one-movement, 45-minute work, is cast in eight continuous sections and is, in effect, a concerto for cello and string orchestra, written for a commission from cellist Steven Isserlis. The opening panel, called "The Protecting Veil," begins and remains throughout mainly in the upper ranges of both the cello (which represents the Blessed Mother) and strings. It features lovely meditative music of an ethereal character, based on the theme from the Russian Orthodox chant We Magnify You. The second section, the "Nativity of the Mother of God," like the first, is largely meditative but also exotic, featuring wavering tones and string writing that recalls the more playful side of Stravinsky.

"The Annunciation" is livelier and somewhat folk-like, but becomes dark and ponderous in its latter half. In "The Incarnation," the mood brightens as sonorities rise and the cello turns busier. Here, as in the previous section, the Stravinsky-like string episode is brilliantly recalled. "The Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross" is the longest section, and features highly imaginative writing for the soloist, who performs mostly unaccompanied throughout and mainly in the lower ranges. The music is sad and anguished here, but gradually divulges a more exotic, if bleak character.

"Christ Is Risen!" is the shortest section, but also the most joyous and lively, its thematic material borrowed from the composer's Orthodox Vigil Service. The ensuing panel, "The Dormition of the Mother of God," features a lovely theme, first used in Tavener's own Hymns to the Mother of God. The closing section, "The Protecting Veil," consists of a reprise of the opening, as well as material to depict the sadness of the Blessed Mother.