Sir John Tavener said that The Veil of the Temple is “the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed.” A bold statement by any composer, but one you should be allowed to make if you’ve written a sprawling and spiraling work that, when performed in its entirety, is roughly eight hours long.
This recording of The Veil of the Temple (a condensed concert version that is still a substantial work at two-and-a-half hours) with The Choir of the Temple Church, The Holst Singers, and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephen Layton with soprano Patricia Rozario, is actually the 2005 recording which has been re-released in honor of what would have been Tavener’s 70th-birthday year – he passed away in November 2013.
The piece is broken down into eight “cycles,” each building on the previous in terms of both musical material and length. For this recorded version, the first cycle lasts approximately eight minutes while the eighth cycle lasts over 35 minutes. There’s no doubt that this is a spiritual work – contemplations about the existence of God have always been something important to Tavener – but he really wanted to go beyond biblical scripture in this piece to embrace as many world religions as possible, as well as various poets and authors.
In fact, the first thing you hear is the soprano singing the words of the Sufi mystic Rumi, and over the course of the piece you’ll find texts from the Koran, St. Augustine and Dostoyevsky. You’ll hear Sufi and Hindu rhythms in addition to multiple kinds of chant. And you’ll definitely get a sense of the kind of relentless, cyclic, all-night ritual that is meant to be heard through the night until dawn.
Tavener went on to say that, “by the act of writing The Veil I understood that no single religion could be exclusive.” He could have added that no single belief, or language or musical style is exclusive either. Listening to all the tracks in one sitting makes a powerful musical statement and encourages you to take the meditative and contemplative journey with him.
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