Between Here & Eternity: Revealing "The Sacred Veil"
By Thomas May
“Orpheus, playing his lyre, sang to himself/ His songs of you, dear wife … Singing he went/ … through the murky grove where Terror dwells…” This passage comes from Book IV of the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics, which builds up to an indelible retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (here in David Ferry’s beautiful translation).
Thanks to Monteverdi, as well as its treatment by subsequent composers, the story of Orpheus and the quest for his lost beloved has acquired the status of a foundational myth in Western music: a myth attesting to the power of music itself. What composer wouldn’t be tempted to conjure the effect Virgil describes when he writes of “the unsubstantial phantom shapes” of the dead being moved by the sound of Orpheus’ music?
Virgil’s version ends in tragedy, Orpheus forever separated from Eurydice because of his fateful backward glance. Yet it is tragedy and mourning that motivate his song in the first place. This is what makes the Orpheus myth emblematic for the profound interconnection between grief and art, which has the ability to heal as it helps us cope: it grapples with the fundamental pattern of human experience, with our longing for permanence in the face of our transient reality. In The SacredVeil Eric Whitacre, the Master Chorale’s Swan Family Artist-in-Residence and Charles Anthony Silvestri have woven a contemporary counterpart that joins music and poetry, giving voice to both unfathomable sorrow and indestructible love.
“We realized that this is a powerful undertaking,” remarks Silvestri when asked to describe the motivation behind his largest-ever project with longtime collaborator Whitacre. “With The Sacred Veil, we’ve touched a third rail in our society, which doesn’t do grief well.” Master Chorale audiences were given a foretaste of the emotional intensity to which Silvestri refers in June 2017, during a program celebrating the 20th anniversary of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. The concert included whatwould become The Sacred Veil’s second-to-last movement “You Rise, I Fall,” depicting the moment of loss, when the beloved passes away and leaves the living to begin the struggle of carrying on.
Charles Anthony Silvestri
Like the Orpheus narrative, the deathbed scene in a contemporary hospital triggers the tangle of associations that accompany a universal archetype. Yet Whitacre’s music responds here—and throughout The Sacred Veil—to poetry inspired by intimately personal experience of love and early, devastating loss.
One of his first reactions before embarking on the larger-scale work, recalls Silvestri, was anxiety as to whether he would be able to go into “this deep and dark place.” The unnamed beloved here is the poet’s wife Julie, who had died of cancer years before he began the project with Whitacre. “By itself, ‘You Rise, I Fall’ was devastating for me to write. Julie had been dead for a dozen years, and I found myself right back there. It was like picking the scab off and again feeling the fresh wound.” At the same time, giving himself permission to write these texts “allowed me to revisit my grief in a very powerful way. In a way, I understood I hadn’t fully grieved, because I hadn’t processed it in art.”
A native of Nevada (like Whitacre), Silvestri is not only a prolific poet and collaborator but also an accomplished painter with an expertise in medieval manuscript illumination and Gothic and Renaissance art. As a highly sought-after lyricist, he has enriched the realm of contemporary choral music by contributing texts for leading composers such as Whitacre and Ola Gjeilo. Silvestri also commands the unusual talent of being able to write fluently in Latin, creating texts for secular and sacred music occasions. This month also brings the publication of A Silver Thread (GIA Publications), an anthology-retrospective of nearly two decades of Silvestri’s lyric poems that have been sung all over the world. And on top of his artistic career, Silvestri is a scholar and historian who teaches ancient and medieval history at Washburn University in Kansas.
The Sacred Veil differs in scale and scope from the other works produced to date by the creative partnership between Silvestri and Whitacre. The poet is responsible for penning the words to some of Whitacre’s signature pieces, such as Sleep (2000), which revisits Robert Frost’s untouchable-by-copyright Stopping ByWoods on a Snowy Evening; the gorgeously shimmering Latin of Lux Aurumque (2000); and the neo-Elizabethan sonnet Her Sacred Spirit Soars (2002). According to Whitacre, as a team they’ve tried out “just about every possible combination of working together you could imagine. We’ve worked side by side like a song-writing team and have even tried exchanging roles, with Tony writing the music to one of my poems.”
But both Whitacre and Silvestri understood from the outset that the stakes were of an altogether different order with TheSacred Veil. Indeed, it began unexpectedly when the poet was visiting Los Angeles in the fall of 2016 to attend the funeral of a beloved aunt. As usual when in town, he stayed with Whitacre—the two speak of each other as if they were actual brothers—and had brought along a poem he intended to read at the funeral. The poem was originally written at the request of another composer before Silvestri decided to use it to commemorate his aunt. “I began wondering what Eric would do with this,” he recalls, and proceeded to leave a copy of the poem on the composer’s piano while he was attending the funeral. “When I came back, Eric had already set it to music, like lightning in a bottle.” For his part, Whitacre points out that his usual process is to memorize a poem he is setting so that he can “live with it for a time before composing. But this time I was moved to start improvising on it right away.” It was Whitacre who broached the idea of turning this into the entrée into a much longer work coalescing around the image of (in the composer’s phrasing) “a ribbon of energy between the world of the living and those who have passed beyond.” This ribbon or veil “becomes very thin” at the framing moments of birth and death.
This seed poem, “The Veil Opens,” is now situated as the first of The Sacred Veil’s thirteen movements and is structurally germinal for the entire work as well. Explains Silvestri: “That poem has thirteen lines, and each in turn became the seed for a whole movement, either rhythmically, melodically, or mystically.” With that initial spark, he combined poetic with philosophical and spiritual ideas to trace the course of a couple’s love story
and to make sense of the inevitability of loss and grief.
“My idea is that there is a veil between finitude here on this side of eternity and on the other side,” says Silvestri. “Souls pass back and forth during births and deaths. Hospitals and emergency rooms are the sacred places where these occur.”
Reimagining his countless visits with Julie in hospitals, the poet began to perceive them as “liminal spaces between this world and the next.”
Another crucial part of Silvestri’s concept involves the matter of perspective, as embodied in the lean, brutally simple lines of “You Rise, I Fall”: “We are here, left behind, after our loved ones have died. So we go on living and await the day we might be reunited. That’s from our perspective. But what happens if we switch that and think of the perspective of the one who has died? They are in eternity, which by definition means where there is no time or space as we know these according to the fixed laws of the universe. From that perspective, we have always already been in eternity with the person who has died and will be there forever with them. The loved ones we have lost are right here. But once I cross the veil back into this world again, I am bound by space and time and I experience reality from a finite perspective.”
In fact, “You Rise, I Fall” was among the first poems Silvestri wrote following the seed poem. He composed The Sacred Veil piecemeal, making those texts the “platform” for a cyclical narrative that traces his personal journey with Julie and “the process of moving through the veil to this world and then back through the veil.” Across the thirteen poems, the narrative perspective likewise shifts. Silvestri was also inspired by the role of the ancient Greek chorus voicing a perspective that pulls back from the events to decipher a larger message.
The poems have been painstakingly tailored. Silvestri notes that Whitacre’s “always fluid” composing process means that “he changes things all the time at the last possible second. I provide the text and then walk away, and he goes into the cave. We touch base often, but a lot happens that I don’t know about.” Overall, he estimates, “I must have written 150% of what we see in the final work, since I always give Eric more than what he needs. He sifts it and trims the fat, like the director of a play who cuts a scene to make the whole more powerful.”
For Grant Gershon, Kiki & David Gindler Artistic Director of the Master Chorale, the scale of The Sacred Veil evokes works such as Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, “which is also not much more than an hour but so densely packed with material” that it conveys a full, cathartic experience on its own terms. As a brief prelude to The Sacred Veil, the Master Chorale performs Whitacre’s setting of e.e. cummings’ “i thank You God for most this amazing day.”
“We all have experienced loss,” says Gershon, “and The Sacred Veil is an embodiment how we can allow music to help us to process these searing emotions. It is remarkable that almost
every example of music I can think of that helps us deal with grieving involves singing. It might be a piece as direct and familiar as Amazing Grace or as complex yet still deeply personal as the Brahms German Requiem. Still, this common denominator of music for the voice uses music in a way that creates a communal sense of sharing the experience and opening ourselves up together to these feelings.”
Silvestri hopes the result of experiencing The Sacred Veil together “won’t be just like going to another concert. Everybody has a story and a place they don’t want to touch. It is my hope and Eric’s hope that the Master Chorale’s performance of this work can encourage people to go to their place of pain and think about the person they have lost—and help them come to terms with it.”
Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.