Cultures: Plumbing the Depths of Death and Eternity

The Sacred Veil
Text by Charles Anthony Silvestri, Julia Lawrence Silvestri, and Eric Whitacre
The Los Angeles Master Chorale
Grant Gershon, Artistic Director
Lisa Edwards, piano
Jeffrey Ziegler, cello
Eric Whitacre, conductor

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Review by Marty Wheeler Burnett

Many have sought ways to express grief and lament during this time of pandemic. Among the “spiritual but not religious” population, traditional musical expressions such as choral Requiems may not be an entry point. Composer Eric Whitacre steps into the void with a powerful extended choral work, The Sacred Veil.

Whitacre’s latest work is deeply spiritual, plumbing the depths of death and eternity. In it, he traces an emotional and physical journey through love, life, a cancer diagnosis, and death.

The 12-movement composition is based on the story of Julia Lawrence Silvestri, the late wife of librettist Charles Anthony Silvestri. The lyrics are drawn from her own writings, her husband’s poetry, and poetry by the composer. The 57-minute work features the acclaimed Los Angeles Master Chorale, pianist Lisa Edwards, and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. The plaintive, dark tone colors of the cello effectively set the mood.

As a young mother, Julie Silvestri was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died in 2005 at age 35. Tony Silvestri, immersed in work, parenting, and emotional pain, did not write about his wife’s death until almost 10 years later. With encouragement from his friend and collaborator, Eric Whitacre, the idea for the composition emerged. Through reflecting on his experiences, as well as revisiting his late wife’s journals and blog posts for the first time since her death, Silvestri was able to process his grief.

Whitacre’s hallmark compositional style — rich choral harmonies and expressive settings of contemporary poetry — is stretched and expanded here. The musical journey is unified through the several compositional devices.  Whitacre utilizes middle C as a tonal center representing “the sacred veil,” the liminal plane dividing life and death. The number 3 figures prominently throughout the work. Julie is represented by a recurring theme using the interval of a minor third; chord progressions move in thirds; lines of text are often repeated three times, providing, in Whitacre’s words, a liturgical, formal feel.

The most remarkable movement and a pillar of the extended work is “You Rise, I Fall.” In this 10-minute sonic exploration, the composer depicts the moment of death. Once again Whitacre utilizes middle C as a tonal center. The choir sings complex chords that slowly slide up and down, representing the departing soul rising and the surviving loved one falling into grief. In death, the rising chords slowly evaporate into ethereal sound, and the descending chords move into the abyss of grief, ending with the single, central pitch — the sacred veil. The choral performance of this movement, with its immense vocal, physical, and emotional challenges, is flawless.

Accompanying notes describe how listeners immediately and personally relate to the story. Ironically, as I first listened to this work, I had received word of a college friend who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The music and poetry inspired memories of family and friends who have succumbed to this deadly disease.

This is not “sacred music” and, indeed, does not purport to be. The composer has clearly stated as much. The Sacred Veil is a deeply moving exploration of the journey of terminal illness and the transitions of birth and death. It reminds us that our loved ones are closer than we often imagine, just across the sacred veil of eternity.

Dr. Marty Wheeler Burnett is associate professor of church music and director of chapel music at Virginia Theological Seminary and president of the Association of Anglican Musicians.

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