Eric Whitacre’s touching choral work is “not sparkling, not epic, just real”


Grammy Award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is one of today’s most popular and intriguing musicians. His acclaimed choral works have been programmed on stages worldwide, and his virtual choirs have brought together more than 100,000 singers from nearly 150 countries.

In this interview, I spoke with Eric about the story behind The Sacred Veil, his 12-movement choral work in collaboration with poet and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri (pictured above), and what it means to him to be bringing this work to the Sydney Opera House for the very first time.

Eric Whitacre captured by Mar Royce.

Congratulations on the upcoming Australian debut of The Sacred Veil. This work was inspired by a poem written by your friend and collaborator Charles Anthony Silvestri after losing his wife to cancer. When you first began to set this poem to music, were you immediately inspired to have it become part of such an epic choral work, or did the journey start as a more introspective exercise for you?

Tony and I had been talking about the death of his wife Julie for close to 10 years at that point. I knew Julie really well. Tony, being my best friend, you can imagine how many conversations we had about her death and how difficult it was for Tony and what it meant to him.

I had suggested several times during those 10 years that Tony write about it, as a way to process it or purge it, or I don’t know what — just that I know for myself, the best way for me to find or create some clarity is to create something about it. Tony wasn’t sure he could do that. He wasn’t even sure where to start. And then one day out of the blue, he presented me with this poem, which is this very first movement, The Veil Opens. It started with this line:

Whenever there is birth or death, the sacred veil between the worlds grows thin and open slightly up.

He showed it to me not thinking that I would set it, just a thing that he had written, that first poem. And I was so moved by it. It’s exquisite poetry. And also, knowing Tony and knowing his journey, I think I could read between the lines very quickly and see the whole worldview that he had — the very personal worldview that was sort of embedded beneath the words.

I sat down and wrote the music really quickly. For me, it usually takes weeks or months to write something. And it was amazing that within a few hours, I’d written a big chunk of the piece, and also had the entire arc of it. I could see it in the poetry.

I should say as a side note, this is one of the things that Tony does better than any living poet I’ve seen, which is that the architecture for the music is built into the poem itself. As a composer, it’s a dream having that.

And so I showed him what I was writing, and that’s when we had the conversation: I said to him, ‘I think there might be more here if you’re ready’. We had a lot of conversations about that. Was he ready? And what would that mean? I think we both knew intuitively that if we were going to make this piece, we’d — especially Tony — really have to get our hands dirty. For the entire time that we’ve been making things together, we often talk that we’re getting progressively more and more introspective and honest with what we make together. And I think we both knew that, if we were going to do this, it was going to get close to the bone.

To his credit, Tony said, ‘Okay, let’s do this’.

We had no idea what we were making, what it would look like, how many movements, what those movements would be, what the structure was. We didn’t even know that what is now the first movement would be the first movement. We just knew that it was just a tiny strand of DNA that would help us build the rest of the piece.

In the opening movement The Veil Opens, that first lyric one hears is: “Whenever there is birth or death, the sacred veil between the worlds grows thin and opens slightly up.” A profound statement made even more powerful by the choir’s close harmonies and the haunting cello line. It seems as if the choir becomes the veil itself, and the cello is the soul, slipping from one side to the other. Was this your intention, and what was it about the cello that inspired you to use it so prominently in this work?

Thanks, Jeffrey. It’s really beautiful insight. It was funny, because the way commission typically works is that you get the group to agree on the commission. Basically, that means: here’s the general subject matter, here’s the general length of the piece, and here’s the forces that will be used. Not knowing any of this when it was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, I just said I knew that it would be about Tony and his journey with his wife Julie, and that it would probably be somewhere between 50 and 90 minutes — I just took a wild guess — and that there would be 10 instruments plus choir. I think I said 10 instruments because I just wanted to cover my bets in case it needed that.

Also, of course, the subject matter is so big and so epic that initially I thought, okay, it needs real forces and lots of colour. Then what I found — as we started making the piece, and it got more and more honest, and Tony’s poetry was coming back unadorned and unbaroque — it was just very clear and precise and human. I could remember at one point I thought, ‘Okay, so we’ve just lost all the winds. So now it’s just strings and harp and piano and percussion’. And then at some point, ‘No, actually, percussion goes away and then harp goes away’. One by one, all the instruments in my mind were being taken away in an effort to get more and more honest. To have it not be dazzling, not sparkling, not epic, just be real.

One by one, all the instruments in my mind were being taken away in an effort to get more and more honest

Eventually, it ended up where it is now: piano, cello, and choir. The cello plays all of these different roles. Its first and most important role is that it presents the veil itself. For me, the veil is that middle C. It permeates the whole piece, and you very astutely talk about the cello slipping from one side to the other. In fact, the whole piece is about that. There’s key relationships that are above middle C, so kind of on the side of the living. Below middle C, the side of those who have passed. And this game is being played with all of the instruments, but especially the cello.

I was drawn to two things then, when I finally settled on the cello. One is that pragmatically, for that game that gets played, there’s really no other instrument that can so beautifully transverse that line of middle C, that you’ve got two octaves below with the cello and in theory, two octaves above. And so it can really dance around that middle C on either side of this veil.

And the other is that just the cello, to my ears, is far and away the most human sounding instrument. It sounds more like a voice than anything. I’m not sure that I ever ascribed to this idea that it is Tony, or is the veil, but more just that it sings in a way.

Years ago, I wrote a piece called When David Heard, and it begins with a prologue and a postlogue, I suppose. The idea was that the prologue would be this Greek chorus singing, which sets up the piece, and then the piece begins and we see the actual drama. And then the postlogue would be that it’s the Greek chorus that comes back and sings, but the story has been so moving and tragic that even the Greek chorus is moved to tears by what they’ve heard. I love the idea of applying that kind of metaphor to the cello here, where the cello in a way is the narrator. So, in a way, is dispassionate, or is looking at the story from a distance. It’s as if the narrator themselves is moved by the story of these two people.

Eric captured by Tao Ruspoli and Marie Noorbergen.

With its cacophony of medical terminology, the sixth movement I’m Afraid so perfectly captures the devastation and confusion one experiences when first receiving a cancer diagnosis. And the stark reality of having to explain hair loss from cancer treatment to one’s child dealt with in the eighth movement Delicious Times is heartbreaking. Listening to this work has surely been very cathartic for so many of us who have lost loved ones to cancer. Have you had many people tell you that listening to The Sacred Veil has played a healing role in their own grief process?

Jeffrey, if you’ve lost someone to cancer, really, my deepest condolences. This is far and away the most unexpected part of writing this piece. I never could have guessed this, that people would respond to it the way they have. I think while we were making it, our north star the entire time was just be honest. And so what that meant was we stopped trying to generalise or try to paint a picture of universal grief or human grief. It was just tell the story between Tony and Julie. But now I know from experience that it’s actually the specificity of drama that makes it universal.

And the first responses we started getting were people that were, as you said, like with the medical terminology, that they literally recognised the terminology of their own cancer diagnosis or cancer diagnosis of loved ones in the lyrics. That they knew ‘that is the medicine that was prescribed to me’, or that was the diagnosis, the language of the diagnosis. That I wasn’t expecting, but of course, so many people have gone through this cancer journey. And the more we do it then people are writing to us saying even beyond cancer, it’s given them a way to grieve. Tony says this very beautifully — that in the West, we don’t grieve well, and everything is kind of at a distance.

I think oftentimes of Requiem Mass, which of course we perform all the time in classical music, these different requiems. And the Requiem Mass is very distant. It takes place sort of over there. And it’s not digging in the dirt the way Tony’s poetry does in The Sacred Veil where it’s saying: ‘This is what happened to me. This is the actual human experience of this happening.’ And I’d like to think that just saying it out loud gives people — people who’ve struggled with cancer for sure, but also just people who have grieved — the chance to voice that grief, or maybe just a little catharsis seeing that they’re not alone in that grief.

There is a lot of excitement around your bringing The Sacred Veil to Australia this September. What does it mean to you to have this work performed by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in your first return to the Sydney Opera House in nearly a decade?

It’s like, I can’t begin to tell you. I mean first, I love Australia. I have such a warm spot in my heart for it. And to be coming back already is a joy and a thrill, but then to be doing this piece, which means so, so, so much to me — and to be doing it with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, which my experience last time was just that these are incredibly soulful singers. So I know already going in that they’re going to bring every ounce of themselves to the performance. I’m deeply humbled and honored by the chance to present this.

After performances in both Sydney and Melbourne, The Sacred Veil will receive its New Zealand debut later in September. Are there any plans to bring this work to other parts of the world in the future?

I’m now making a larger version for string orchestra and choir and piano. So it’ll be exactly the same piece, but just elevated a little bit. My idea is that it’ll be performed by slightly larger forces. So, that way we can really take advantage of a few of those moments that I think will benefit from a grander set of forces. There’s already plans to do that in Denver, United States in October, then I think in England next summer.

Then The Sacred Veil, the smaller version that we’re doing now in Sydney and New Zealand will be performed in the United States, and I’ve just recorded it with VOCES8 — and my God, is that a beautiful performance. That will be released next year, I believe, in 2023. So it’s kind of out there starting to find its little path.

In addition to The Sacred Veil and your groundbreaking work with virtual choirs, you have produced other acclaimed pieces inspired by everything from the Hubble Space Telescope to Renaissance poetry. Are there any hints as to what the source of inspiration for the next Eric Whitacre work might be?

Back in 2019, I wrote what is now the bones of a little chamber opera called The Gift of the Magi, which is a Christmas story that my father used to read to all of us kids every Christmas. I put it up and heard it was about 22 minutes’ worth of the music. But then over the past years during the pandemic, I’ve taken it down and torn it apart and rewrote a whole bunch of it, and added a bunch of new music — and now it’s this little 40-minute chamber opera. That’s what I’ll be working on over the next year, this little Christmas chamber opera…. I find the idea of a little Christmas opera so charming. And the piece that I’m writing is a little old fashioned, and kind of a Christmas that I used to think about and dream about when I was a kid.

So, that’s what I’m working on, and I think I’m also recording that next June… it’ll be up and on its feet within the year.

The Sacred Veil: Eric Whitacre Conducts premieres in Australia at Melbourne’s Alexander Theatre, 7-8 September, and Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 17 September.

The Sacred Veil was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, artistic director Grant Gershon, Monash University, and NTR ZaterdagMatinee for the Netherlands Radio Choir.

Eric Whitacre at the world premiere of The Sacred Veil, 2019, photo by Jamie Pham.

Images supplied.

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