Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tavener's "The Veil of the Temple"

I'm finally finished with grading tests and papers for three classes, so I feel more free to blog again….

When the composer John Tavener died late last year, I read his obituary and tributes in Gramophone magazine, and I was intrigued by the mention of a 7-hour piece called The Veil of the Temple. The piece was commissioned by, and premiered at the 12th-century Temple Church in London, the portion of which called the Round Church evokes (architecturally and spiritually) the round Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.

I haven’t listened to Tavener’s music as much as I should, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard, like his Ex Maria Virgine and Lament for Jerusalem and the well-known "Song for Athene." So I ordered the recording of The Veil (an 2+ hour portion of the whole) and have been playing it a lot this month. In fact, I’ve not even gotten to Disc 2 yet because I’ve played Disc 1 over and over.

At the site, Tavener himself writes, “I regard The Veil of the Temple as the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed. … It is composed in eight cycles like a gigantic prayer wheel with each cycle ascending in pitch and in cycles 1 to 7 using verses from St. John’s Gospel at the centre.

“The music was deeply influenced by orthodox vigil services, but I wanted to go beyond Christianity and embrace Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism and the religion of the American Indians. The soprano solo represents both the Self, Atma, and Mary Magdalene as apostolorum. She journeys through the eight cycles, reaching a total realisation of Self at the end of the last cycle where she recognises Christ’ s divinity.”

How interesting to think of Mary Magdalene experiencing darśana (the Hindu word for the epiphany of encountering the divine) in recognizing Christ at the tomb---and of her thereby achieving liberation of her atman, her inner essence, from the duality of maya, illusion. This is an intriguing (or some would say, outrageous and inappropriate) blending of the spiritual goals of Hinduism and Christianity.

The liner notes of The Veil of the Temple quotes the Jewish philosopher Philo, who writes Platonically of the Temple, “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 priest the angels... Things in the Holy of Holies beyond the second veil, in heaven itself, are invisible, they are accessible to the mind alone.” In The Veil, Tavener similarly thinks of the Gospel narratives of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: what are the meanings of the Christian gospel if we open them to philosophical and inter-religious understandings? He writes at the website above: “By the act of writing The Veil I understood that no single religion could be exclusive. The Veil has become light – there is no longer any veil. This tearing away of the Veil shows that all religions are in the transcendent way inwardly united beneath their outward form.” Thus he also incorporates Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Native American elements.

Again, this is a very different way of understanding the Gospel, and to me intriguing. As I've written elsewhere: although I’ve committed my life to the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ, I dearly hope God provides ways by which persons outside the circle of Christian witness can experience that power and grace. I strongly believe that if we are not kind and humble in our faith—if we are unwilling to allow God to know more than we do about the mysteries of grace—then we risk becoming closed to God and one another.

At the website, Tavener goes on to say that each of the eight cycles grows in length and intensity, and each has a characteristic like that of Hindu ragas or of Byzantine tones. The respective gospel selections---from Jesus’ farewell discourses in the Gospel of John---also have different characteristics as the cycles progress: the first portion is serene and contemplative while the seventh is very Hindu and characterized by Hindu chanting.

Tavener comments that he hopes the cycles lead the listener to a “spiritual peak of intensity. The awesome sound of the tam tam, temple bowls, Tibetan horn, bells, simatron and organ announce the end of the beginning. ‘The sun hid its rays and the veil of the temple was rent from the top unto the bottom’. This breaks the husk represented by the [M]osaic law. By breaking the husk we are introduced to the Hindu world as Mary Magdalene representing the Self sings in Sanskrit the words Maya Atma, a musical seesaw of reality and illusion.” (Again, this material comes from the website

As another personal aside: I do disagree with Christian supersessionist theology: the belief that Christianity has superseded and replaced Judaism, rendering precious things in Jewish belief (the Torah mitzvot, the Temple) as mere "husks" for a more full religion to come. There are many resources in Jewish theology, such as the concept of tikkun olam and others, which can contribute to a sense of God's worldwide sovereignty, without diminishing Jewish heritage in the way we Christians so often do. That New Testament theology of Christ's opening of the holy places, breaking the "curse" of the Torah law, is very strong in Christian thinking---and difficult to express in ways that are not at least implicitly anti-Jewish. I fall back on the fact that the Gospel authors were themselves Jews who believed the rending of the veil as a continuation rather than a repudiation of Jewish heritage.

Apart from that aside, I find this music's intermingling of religious traditions (both theological and musical) fascinating and worthy to contemplate. Something in me loves this kind of connections-making and interrelated, meaningful structure, plus I've taught World Religions for over twenty-five years.

The liner notes of this two-CD set provide interesting facts about this piece. The very beginning of The Veil features a soprano singing a song to God by the Sufi mystic Rumi. Each cycle also begin with the words (translated) “Without form, void, chaos, Word.” A Tibetan temple horn makes the division of the first seven sycles. Each cycle rises a note in pitch so that the whole work ascends. harkening to the rising of Christ whose death ripped the Temple veil.

The lesson in Cycle VII, from Romans, concerns Christ’s death and resurrection, leading us to Cycle VIII, representing the eighth day of the week (the day of new creation and of Easter). In this final cycle, Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ. But there Mary Magdalene also represents the Hindu Self who sings Maya Atma, illusion and soul. Cycle VIII even quotes from Tristan und Isolde, the themes of death and love together. When Mary recognizes Christ and cries Ravouni (Master), she has (in the cycle) realized the Atman (self) within her, and the music leads into a Hindu sound- and thought-world as the singers sing the sacred sound Aum, the Upanishad benediction “shantih, shantih, shantih,” and finally the promise of Isaiah 60:1, invoking the new Jerusalem and the Lord’s glory.

A informative obituary of Tavener can be found here:  Concerning The Veil, this author writes, “Tavener himself likened it to a ‘gigantic prayer wheel’, but … it is a kind of oratorio, telling the story from the rending of the veil in the temple in Jerusalem as Jesus died on the cross to Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, seeing the risen Christ, and perceiving that the veil between death and life has been lifted. It's also a piece inspired by a particular building – the Temple Church in London, where it was first performed. As Tavener wrote in the sleeve notes when the recording was released, when the Knights Templar built their beautiful round church, they were seeking to recreate something of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for their own place of worship and burial. The Veil of the Temple imports this, giving the Knights a theme in Cycle 8 of surpassing beauty that evokes a great feeling of peace and permanence. Occasionally interspersed between the vocal harmonies, though, are discordant organ phrases and the melancholy tolling of bells, which is Tavener's reminder that all is not at peace in the place the Knights sought to found anew with their church – Jerusalem itself.”

That author also notes that the piece also provides “brilliant music to get lost in,” which is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

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