The Protecting Veil : Work information

John (Kenneth) Tavener ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Raphael Wallfisch (Cello), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Justin Brown (Conductor)

This work

Work name
The Protecting Veil
Work number
1987-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Peters
Dick Lewzey
Recording date

Track listing

  • The Protecting Veil 42:29 min


The Feast of the Protecting Veil has its origins in the early tenth century when the Virgin Mary appeared to the Greeks and protected them from the invading Saracens. John Tavener's piece The Protecting Veil was composed in 1987 and received its first performance at the BBC Proms in 1989.

A work for solo cello and strings, The Protecting Veil falls into eight sections played without a break. Each of the first seven sections ends with a bell-like passage of descending cluster chords, each section adding a new chord on the end until a scale is complete.

Tavener's aim was to "make a lyrical ikon in sound, rather than in wood, using the music of the cellist rather than a brush. The work is highly stylised, geometrically formed and meditative in character. I have tried to capture some of the almost cosmic power of the Mother of God. She is represented by the cello, and never stops singing throughout; the accompanying string music is a gigantic extension of her unending song." 

The Composers

John (Kenneth) Tavener

Tavener's calm and thoughtful music has caused him to be called a 'holy minimalist' and has drawn comparisons to Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki.  But Tavener has written in many different styles, and was also a flower boy of the 60s.  He was born on January 28th 1944 in North London, into a religious family who encouraged his early musical talents.  He won a scholarship to Highgate School, where he was friends with the nascent choral composer John Rutter.  Studying at the Royal Academy of Music, Tavener decided to devote himself to composition rather than performance.  He was conducting the choir and playing the organ at St John's Presbyterian Church at the time, and was very keen on Victorian hymns and religious music. But the magic of the sixties had an effect too.

He composed and conducted his opera The Cappemakers when he was twenty, and his cantata Cain and Abel had been performed by the London Bach Society for broadcast before he had finished at the Royal Academy.  But it was with The Whale in 1968 that Tavener shot to fame.  It used prerecorded tapes, amplified percussion and loudhailers in its telling of the story of Jonah.  After hearing it, John Lennon signed Tavener to the Beatles' Apple label. Also that year In Alium was performed, and was reviewed as a musical love-in by The Guardian the next day.  But Tavener's interest in traditional religiosity inclined him away from trendy techniques.  He joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977, and subsequent compositions have been tailored to church liturgy, becoming like "icons with notes rather than colours".

The Protecting Veil (1989), an instrumental piece for cello and strings, resurrected a career that had declined somewhat due to whiskey and writer's block.  It was premiered at the Proms, and went to the top of the classical charts for several months.  The hymn Akathist of Thanksgiving (1994) is regarded by some as Tavener's greatest work, and his fame spread the world over when his choral piece Song for Athene was played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1998.  In 2000 he was knighted for services to music.

Related composers: RutterBoulez, MessiaenGorecki