The Sacred Veil

The Sacred Veil

In 2005, poet Charles Anthony (Tony) Silvestri lost his wife, Julie, to ovarian cancer. The 12-movement The Sacred Veil is their story—one of love, anguish, loss, and the search for inner peace—told through a mosaic of texts and poetry by Silvestri, his late wife, and composer Eric Whitacre. The brutal candor of medical records, poetic expressions of purest love, poignant glimpses of humor, and the reassuring hand of friendship are bonded together in music of profound beauty. Whitacre’s score—for choir, cello, and piano—features some of his finest, most personal music. The idea of a “sacred veil” came to Silvestri during his visits to the hospital. “A hospital room is sacred,” he tells Apple Music. “They’re places where births and deaths occur, and births and deaths are numinous occurrences. There are times when the veil between this world and the next world becomes very thin, and that was a comfort to me because even though Julie’s not with me physically in this realm, she’s right here.” From the start, Whitacre anchors his music onto middle C, which represents the veil itself, all the while crossing the veil to birth or death by moving between the notes that surround it. Throughout, love and grief combine in exquisite clashes of major and minor chords, and Whitacre’s burnished choral harmonies and quicksilver key changes paint myriad moods. Such an intimate work could be born only from deep emotional connection, and Whitacre and Silvestri are best friends who have previously collaborated on several choral works. “I couldn’t have written this piece and gone through catharsis and healing if I wasn’t working with Eric,” says Silvestri. “He understands me and knows me.” And it was with Whitacre’s encouragement that Silvestri was able to muster the strength to read his wife’s journals and medical records that form the work’s devastating heart. “I feel like Dante, with Virgil—Eric Virgil, if you like—guiding me on my journey,” says Silvestri. Here Silvestri and Whitacre guide us through The Sacred Veil, movement by movement—as premiered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Whitacre, with cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and pianist Lisa Edwards. The Veil Opens Eric Whitacre: “At the very start, you can hear Julie’s theme in three notes: middle C, and its surrounding notes up and down a third. When the cello enters, it starts on middle C, which also symbolizes the veil. These ideas permeate the entire piece. Every phrase of Tony’s poem is repeated three times. What I hoped to do is establish these themes, both musically and metaphysically, and present the idea of the number three being the piece’s governing principle.” Tony Silvestri: “From a textual point of view, the first movement is like the Greek chorus. As the curtain opens, the chorus introduces you to what this piece is about. It’s the beginning and the end of the piece. It introduces the work, but it also introduces the synthesis of everything that I had learned in the process.” In a Dark and Distant Year TS: “We felt it was important to establish who I was before I met Julie and to have that spark moment where this girl appears to me in my story. It also sets up the moment in the third movement when she just feels like home to me. The imagery in this movement is all very personal. The word foam is a reference to Eric’s piece ‘A Boy and a Girl,’ which is one of my absolute favorites. In almost every movement, there’s a hint at one of the many collaborations that Eric and I have done together.” EW: “Tony is always throwing me what I call watermelons—these big, beautiful gifts to a composer. And here, he uses the idea of a ‘wand’rer.’ And so the music wanders from key to key to key, whereas the entire first movement is static and just doesn’t move from C minor.” Home TS: “This movement evokes a lazy Sunday afternoon, lying on the bed with Julie. The golden sunlight is coming in through the window and you can see the dust mites in the air. There’s also a kind of rainy-day, staying-in quality to it. It’s a snuggly, warm blanket of embrace.” EW: “I remember Tony telling me that I needed to write this movement from my own experience. So this is born of my own love when I’d just met my wife three years previously. Most of the musical material here comes from a little piano track I wrote for her to listen to at night.” Magnetic Poetry TS: “Somebody had given us one of these poetry fridge-magnet sets and every time one of us would walk by, we would add a word or move things around and make little poems for each other. One day, I opened up Julie’s journals—I hadn’t seen them since she passed. And I found on one page she had written out two or three of these magnetic poems. At the time, we were trying to conceive a child and she was heartbroken about how difficult that was. But at the same time, Julie was trying to describe that same experience of lying on the bed with the light coming in.” EW: “Here the two chords, which are used throughout the piece, have a rocking-and-rolling quality—to me it sounds like a grainy 8-millimeter film of a day at the beach. Just a memory of a memory of a memory. Every time I read this poem, I can’t believe how poignant and delicate it is.” Whenever There is Birth EW: “For me, this instrumental movement represents the birth of Tony and Julie’s first son, Thomas. I had this very clear image in my mind of skin on skin, a baby just been born—and then a middle section where it blossoms and opens up. I use the exact chords in movement eight, Delicious Times.” I’m Afraid TS: “Julie was in labor with our first child, and in the delivery room, they did a last-minute ultrasound because she was 11 days late. They found a tumor. I don’t know from a doctor’s perspective how hard it must be to tell people that they have cancer. I know how hard it is to hear it. And the movement captures that confusion and this medical terminology coming at you.” EW: “Years ago, somebody told me that the moment you know you have cancer, there’s a clock ticking. You find yourself laughing with your children, and you’re instantly aware that there’s this clock that’s always ticking behind you. Julie’s theme becomes these rolling, insistent thirds—the motor behind the music. You can also hear the cancer theme creeping through: a minor third clashing against a major third.” I Am Here EW: “For me, this movement is Julie trying to comprehend everything, with Tony trying to deal with the diagnosis himself. And then there’s a moment when you hear Julie’s theme, and then out of that she rises, lifts herself up, dusts herself off. And then we move straight into the movement with her children—as bad as all this is, she has to throw back her shoulders and be strong for them.” Delicious Times TS: “Julie was a person of deep faith and began to send out email updates to her church community. For her, it was like a kind of ministry to let people know how she was doing. But then the community began to forward these emails and they spread all around the world. This one was written during the last academic year that she was alive, so things were nearing the end.” EW: “This was far and away the most difficult text for me to set—it’s just so honest and human and so brave. I tried to set it as simply as I possibly could. I needed to get out of the way and let the words do all of the work because they’re so beautiful.” One Last Breath EW: “This was a poem I wrote—it became clear to me that there was part of the story that I wanted to tell that I just didn’t think Tony would be able to, and it bridges Julie’s last heroic moments to the time when she’s genuinely desperate. Tony is the most humble, eloquent, brilliant man I know, and he just couldn’t see himself as a hero in all of this. And as his friend watching from the outside, I saw him very much as a hero. I included quotes from pieces we worked on together: ‘dark and deep’ comes from ‘Sleep,’ which we collaborated on in 2000, and ‘He steels himself, takes one last breath, and leaps’ is taken from ‘Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine,’ a piece we wrote in 2001. The music has a tangled quality and a sense of foreboding and ancientness.” Dear Friends TS: “This was another of Julie’s email blogs. She truly believed that God was going to heal her in a miracle. She put on this brave face of faith, but I think behind it she must have known that things were really bad. But because of her faith we couldn’t talk about it. If I suggested that maybe she should say goodbye to the kids, that would be me denying God the possibility to being able to heal her, and so it was all very, very complicated.” EW: “Even in Julie’s last moments, her last breath, she is standing strong, and it was really important to me to make that work in the music. When she says, ‘Fight with me’, it repeats three times—there’s an urgency to this movement.” You Rise, I Fall TS: “Eric and I started with this movement, and I think in retrospect that it was very wise to go to the darkest place first. The rest of the process could then rise out of that trough. It started with the deepest wound so that I could begin the healing process.” EW: “My only instinct was that Tony and I should lock arms and jump into the deep end of the pool. Tony once introduced me to a choir called The Harmonic Choir, conducted by David Hykes—one of the things they would do is fall and lock into a chord. I use the effect here to illustrate melting as Tony falls.” Child of Wonder EW: “For me, there’s no more beautiful thing you could say to someone than to tell them they get to go home now. I ended up writing this poem because I couldn’t figure out how to ask Tony to forgive himself. How do you write a benediction for oneself? Musically, I concentrate again on those intervals of a third…For the ending, I wanted to suggest that grief doesn’t just go away, so the piece just ends on that final C—the veil itself.”

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