The premiere of Sir John Tavener's The Protecting Veil

Sir John Tavener and cellist Steven IsserlisSir John Tavener and cellist Steven Isserlis

'If the music is successful,' Robert Maycock said, previewing The Protecting Veil in the 1989 Proms prospectus, 'it will convey its essence more effectively than the language of theology.' Successful it certainly became, if popularity, radio play and CD sales are an appropriate measure, but Maycock had been talking to the composer John Tavener about the story behind the title, a reference to the Christian Orthodox feast, observed on October 1, commemorating a vision of the Virgin which inspired the people of Constantinople to drive off Saracen besiegers in the 10th century. Tavener had commented that it was not important to explain the theological significance, but the Proms audience would have been aware of his inspiration. When I asked him whether he thought that knowledge of the metaphysical underpinning would have affected the audience's reception of the piece he said, 'No, but I think they may subconsciously have reacted to the feminine element in it, which is very strong and may have subliminally communicated itself. We live in an aggressively masculine culture. I've no idea why The Protecing Veil communicated so deeply, but it did so, and it may well be something to do with that feminine dimension.'

The concert marked the 75th anniversary of the Performing Rights Society and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. It opened with Knussen's own Flourish with Fireworks. Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune followed, then the first complete public performance of Minna Keal's Symphony, described in Maycock's preview as 'muscular and argumentative'. Tavener's piece was first after the interval, before Mussorgsky's lntermezzo in modo classico and Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale. Overall this evening was not going to be particularly easy listening, so, while the programme may have been packed, the hall wasn't.

The Protecting Veil was billed as a BBC commission for the 1989 Proms, but in fact it had its genesis more than two years earlier, and it was actually the cellist Steven Isserlis who had asked Tavener to write it. Isserlis had wanted a ten-minute piece for cello and small string orchestra, but what he got was on a much larger scale, clocking in at around three-quarters of an hour. Tavener told me, 'I think if someone had simply asked me for a conventional cello concerto I would have said no, but the way Steven put it to me – how he loved the Orthodox Church, how he'd been to services and wondered if I could write something that had some connection to Orthodox music – I listened with bated breath to what he was saying.'

The BBC put a lot of effort into promoting The Protecting Veil. Some while before the public premiere a performance was taped at the Corporation's Maida Vale studios. Copies were distributed to various critics, there was a discussion on Radio 3, and reactions were very favourable. Isserlis didn't know this at the time, and the premiere generated a double dose of stress for him, since this was his Proms debut. On the other hand, when the BBC commissioned the piece, unaware that it was already written, some of the pressure was relieved: because it had to be kept under wraps until the 1989 season, there was more time to develop and rehearse it, to live with it. Early run-throughs were at Tavener's home, with the composer accompanying Isserlis on piano. During that period Isserlis asked for one passage to be raised an octave to produce a less 'growly' tone. Tavener resisted, but everyone who heard the rehearsals favoured the change and eventually he gave in with good grace.

I asked both composer and soloist if they had any idea beforehand that the work would be so well-received at the Prom. Isserlis, unaware of the buzz the Maida Vale tapes caused, had serious misgivings. 'I thought it was going to be an awful premiere because it was in the second half of a marathon programme with a new symphony in the first half. I thought, everyone's going to want to go home. I thought it was going to be a complete flop, but I loved it by that point, and I was anxious it wouldn't be a complete flop .' Tavener, however says he 'had some impression of how it was going. First of all, at the BBCSO rehearsals the orchestra applauded it so often. I had never come across that before so I suppose I was aware of that dimension. Also I knew of the critics' discussion on the tape which had been passed round.' Isserlis, too , found the BBCSO supportive, especially leader Rodney Friend.

I wondered if, as the premiere unfolded, either Tavener or Isserlis sensed how the audience was receiving it. Isserlis said, 'I guess so, but I was kind of busy. Afterwards I was amazed. Because I'd never played at the Proms before I wasn't quite sure how to compare the atmosphere. The place was half empty because it was such a difficult programme, but those who were there really wanted to listen, and they were wonderful.'

At the end there was a standing ovation from the people in the seats, and the usual appreciative response to new music from the Prommers. Press and radio listener reaction was equally enthusiastic, and descriptions like 'radiant' were bandied about. Given the success of this performance, many people were surprised that when the piece was recorded Oliver Knussen and the BBCSO were passed over. Various explanations for this have circulated, and some have got into print, but none seem to accord with Isserlis's and Tavener's recollections now. The cellist recalls that Tavener had Rozhdestvensky in mind from the start. 'John had such a strong relationship with Rozhdestvensky, especially after he'd conducted the Akhmatova Requiem, and he was keen to work with him. He'd only met Olly Knussen at the Maida Vale session, although they got on very well.' Contrary to some reports, Knussen really liked the piece. Tavener doesn't really remember how the choices for the recording were made, but he confirms, 'I enjoy working with Rozhdestvensky and I knew he would understand the Russian-ness of the piece. He had conducted Akhmatova and I had a good working relationship with him, so I would have felt it natural that he did it, but OLly Knussen did it very well. Maybe I had slight doubts because the kind of music he has sympathy for isn't like my music, but once I'd met him and he'd grasped what it was about – early on he'd said of the score "there aren't any notes in it" – we clicked.'

The critics were generally respectful. The Observer's Nicholas Kenyon thought it 'a liberating, totally absorbing creation which sweeps the listener towards a different world'. Alan Blyth (Daily Telegraph) commented that 'perhaps only a devout believer could write a work of such mesmeric power'. Andrew Clements in The Financial Times felt that though it was 'thoroughly individual' it was also 'curiously ungraspable and emotionally distancing in its archaic melodic refrains'.

Tavener got a lot of letters after the broadcast, mainly from women. He believes that this was because women generally respond on an intuitive rather than purely intellectual level, which chimes better with the Eastern approach to art, and the idea of the music as an ikon for contemplation.

Originally printed in Gramophone, January 2005

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