When John Tavener’s piece for solo cello and string orchestra, The Protecting Veil, was premiered in London in 1989, no one could have predicted that it would capture the hearts of the world so singularly. Both audience and media reaction was rapturous, and the subsequent recording leapt to the top of the charts. The acclaim was all the more startling given the overtly spiritual nature of the piece.
The title of the piece refers to the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, which was instituted in the Orthodox Church to commemorate her miraculous appearance in the Constantinople in the early tenth century. At this time, the Greeks were in under grave assault by the invading Rus. As the faithful gathered in the Cathedral to pray, Andrew, the “holy fool”, saw the Mother of God; she was standing high up above them in the air, surrounded by a host of saints, praying earnestly and spreading out her Veil (stole) as a protective shelter over those assembled. The Rus were repelled, and the lives of many in the city were spared.
The Protecting Veil falls into eight continuous sections inspired by various events in the life of Mary: her birth; the Annunciation; the Incarnation; her lament at the foot of the cross; the Resurrection; and her Dormition. The piece begins and ends with a reflection on her cosmic beauty and power, and ultimately concludes with a musical evocation of the tears of the Mother of God, shed in compassion for all.
According to Tavener, the solo cello in the piece represents the cosmic power of Mary, and furthermore, always represents “the individual mind dying, and the individual mind waking up.” He states that although it is perfectly possible to listen to The Protecting Veil as ‘pure’ music, it was his intention to “make a lyrical ikon in sound, rather than in wood, using the music of the cellist to paint rather than a brush.”