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The Sacred Veil is a new work from composer Eric Whitacre and poet/lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri. Silvestri's wife, Julie, died of ovarian cancer at age 36 in 2005, leaving two young children. His texts (written collaboratively with Whitacre) and the intimate, compelling score tell a story of courtship, love, loss and the search for solace.
My wife, Julie (Julia Lawrence Silvestri), died in May 2005 after a long battle with ovarian cancer, just a few days shy of her 36th birthday, leaving me and our two small children to navigate the world without her, our guiding star. Julie was a gentle soul, but with a tenacious and stubborn spirit, and she approached her diagnosis with grit and determination to survive. She had always wanted to be a mother; and now with the fulfilment of that dream all around her, she faced the anguish of leaving her babies and resolved to beat this disease.
But in spite of all her efforts and prayers, cancer touched our family like it does to so many, and took her away. Understandably I was angry for a long time—at myself, for not doing more to save her; at Julie for leaving me to raise our kids without her; at God, for His cruel silence in the face of all our prayers. I grieved, and mourned her loss, to be sure. But I had children to raise, and a demanding job. I couldn’t touch the deepest places of my grief. At least not yet. And I certainly could not write poetry about it.
After a long while, ten years or so, I was finally in a place where I could process what I had experienced, what Julie’s death had meant to me, and what I had learned after all this time. My friends had encouraged me to write poetry about it, poetry that was authentic, that came from a deep, personal place. And so, with their support I began to experiment with writing about my grief, gingerly touching that place in my heart, still tender after all this time, and exploring the deeper caverns of my emotions.
One of the earliest poems I wrote was a reflection about birth, death, and eternity, which was the product of all the reflection, all the processing, all the spiritual struggle to find my way back to a solid place to stand in a universe with God in it. I began to understand things differently, contemplating what Julie might be experiencing now, having crossed the veil into eternity. It was comforting to realize that from her perspective, where time and space have no meaning, she and I and our children are already together, and have always been. That veil between here and there is always very close, and we are not as separated as I had felt. Our loved ones who have died stand so close to us.
I brought this poem with me to Los Angeles to share at a family funeral, and I stayed in the home of my friend Eric Whitacre. I don’t know what possessed me to leave a copy of the poem on Eric’s piano as I left for the cemetery, but I did so. Perhaps I just wanted to share with my friend the little bit of catharsis I had found in it; perhaps I secretly wanted him to consider setting it. Eric quickly found the music beneath the words, and the journey toward this recording began.
Throughout the entire process Eric was more than a creative collaborator. He was my friend, my brother, my confidant, my confessor, my advocate, my voice when I could not speak. I don’t think I could have explored those deepest places in my soul without his guidance and gentle encouragement. The music he created cradles and embraces the text in the most loving and respectful way.
The process took several years and demanded that I read for the first time since her death Julie’s journals, her email blog, her medical records, and other writing. I discovered (or, rediscovered) what a deep and thoughtful writer she was, how much she cared for me and the kids, and how frightened her illness made her, in spite of her powerful faith. Reading these relics of her inner life was the most challenging part of the process for me, reopening all the old wounds and encouraging a new, deeper catharsis. I am very proud that her voice is included in this work.
Encountering her voice again also reminded me what a deep honor it is to have loved, to have become so intimate with someone that theirs is the hand you hold when you experience the most intense and sacred moments of your life: birth and death, those moments when the two sides of eternity mingle. Those moments are all here in this work: love, life, loss, anguish and, eventually, acceptance, peace, and welcoming home. The Sacred Veil represents the deepest, most personal of all the lyric poetry I have written, and the most intense of all the creative journeys I have attempted. We all have pain. We all have experienced loss. We all long for catharsis and closure, even as we grieve. What I have found is that through hard work and time the old wounds do close; but they leave scars behind. Those scars are powerful talismans, evidence that we loved—and still love—those we have lost. Oh, but they are not lost; their journey continues. The Veil is thin. They stand so close, just there, just on the other side of eternity.
Charles Anthony Silvestri © 2020
For the artists who gave voice to Eric and Tony’s (Charles Anthony Silvestri) creation on this recording, the experience of sharing The Sacred Veil has been cathartic and heart-wrenching. We as musicians are rarely called upon to engage in material that is this 'close to the bone' emotionally, and I’m in awe of everyone involved in this project. Just as Eric and Tony wrote music and poetry of uncompromising honesty, so too did the singers of the LA Master Chorale, pianist Lisa Edwards and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler bare their souls in these sessions. To all of them, and to everyone behind the scenes, I am profoundly grateful. I hope that their empathy, humanity and artistry will reach every listener and give comfort and clarity in times of distress.
Grant Gershon © 2020