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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Rachmaninov's Vespers

Most of us who love classical music would be familiar with the long-standing western European tradition which combines voices and instruments in sacred music; think Bach’s cantatas or Haydn’s masses. But in eastern Europe, in the various national churches which we now put under the heading of "Orthodox" churches, the use of instruments is usually not permitted. In churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church, the only music heard is that which can be produced by the human voice, and this apparent restriction has led to the creation of a completely separate tradition to that of western Europe, and the creation of a completely separate repertoire in a completely separate language (usually called "Old Church Slavonic").

We remember Sergei Rachmaninov today mainly for his piano music, his concertos and his symphonies, and so we should; these are wonderful, beautiful works. But perhaps because of his association in later life with America, we tend to forget the rather obvious fact that Rachmaninov was Russian. Like all Russians of his day (he was born in 1873), the influence of the national church was an essential part of his life, and like Tchaikovsky, this bore fruit in Rachmaninov's creative life as well.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1902)

In 1910, Rachmaninov composed the first of his two major sacred works setting texts from the Russian church: the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. This huge work - it's in twenty movements - was not approved of by the church authorities after its first performance in Moscow and soon fell into obscurity. It has only become available in a modern edition relatively recently and is starting to become better known. [listen]

Five years later, in a mere two weeks in early 1915, Rachmaninov composed his second major sacred work. Its official title is the All-Night Vigil, in that it sets texts from three of the canonical hours: Vespers, Matins and Prime. It's colloquially known today as the Vespers, even though only the first six of the work's fifteen movements derive from the actual Vespers service.

Rachmaninov's settings use the traditional Old Church Slavonic versions of the texts and comprise more than an hour of music, but the All-Night Vigil service itself can last up to three hours. Rachmaninov studied the ancient chants used in the liturgy and wove these into his luminous settings for unaccompanied choir.

Holy Protection Cathedral, Melbourne

At the start of the service the veil behind the Holy Doors is drawn back. The icons are made visible and priest censes the sanctuary in silence. The deacon goes before the priest holding a lighted candle. This action symbolises the presence of the Holy Spirit over the waters at the beginning of creation. The blessing is pronounced by the priest and the deacon, whereupon the choir utters the "Amen" in response, the first word set by Rachmaninov.

The choir then proceeds with the call to worship: "O come, let us worship God our King...let us worship and bow down before him."

In many performances and recordings, the performers only sing what Rachmaninov wrote, which means that they begin with an "Amen" that makes little sense. Fortunately, some editions of the music now provide the chant which precedes this, and the recording linked to here has the chant sung at the outset. When I conduct the piece I like to start with the chant, with the choir responding to it with its initial "Amen". [listen]

The liturgy then continues with the Great Litany, chanted by the deacon and concluded by the priest. The choir, at the start of Rachmaninov's second movement, responds to the Litany with another "Amen". (Again, some performances, such as that linked to here, include some of the Litany's chant in order to make this second Amen seem more logical.)

This leads directly into a setting of a shortened version of one of the psalms, which begins, "Bless the Lord, O my soul". It's a hymn to God as the creator of the world. Rachmaninov uses an alto soloist while the choir is divided into low and high voices as they accompany the soloist and sing the refrain between each verse of the psalm. The low and high sections of the choir are connected by a hummed middle C in the altos and tenors which in a resonant acoustic reverberates gently around the building. [listen]

The full All-Night Vigil liturgy requires the complete reading of Psalms 1 to 8 but there is provision for a shortened form of Psalm 1 to be sung, which is what Rachmaninov sets for his third movement. This includes "Alleluia" sung three times as a refrain after each verse. Each verse, and each "Alleluia" grows richer and more complex in its setting, providing a natural and organic musical development through the text. The psalm begins, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly". In the liturgy this is one of the few times the congregation is allowed to sit; the normal position for the faithful when attending Orthodox services is to stand. [listen]

Rachmaninov's fourth movement sets the Evening Hymn of Light, which begins, "O gladsome light of the holy glory of the Father immortal..." During this hymn and the psalms which are sung at this point in the service the candles and lamps in the church are gradually lit. The priest and the deacon, carrying incense, enter the Holy of Holies through the doors in the centre of the icon screen. Rachmaninov adds a tenor soloist to the texture in this movement. [listen]

Andrei Rublev: Trinity (c. 1400)

The mood of heightened mystery, almost ecstasy, continues in the famous fifth movement. This sets the text known in the western church as the Nunc dimittis, the Song of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke in which the old man praises God after seeing the infant Jesus. This is part of the evening worship in many western Christian traditions, but it has special resonance for Orthodox Christians because it's used in the ceremony in which infants are received into the church.

On a purely musical level, this movement is famous because at the very end the lowest basses in the choir, who have already had to sing as low as bottom C below the bass stave, have to descend a tone lower than that, to B flat. Nikolai Danilin (conductor of the Moscow Synodal Choir), on hearing this passage played by the composer on the piano before the first performance, said, "Where on earth are we to find such basses? They're as rare as asparagus at Christmas!"

This movement clearly had special resonance for the composer, who requested that it be sung at his funeral, which it was. [listen]

Sergei Rachmaninov in California (1919)

The final movement from the official Vesper liturgy set by Rachmaninov is a hymn to the Virgin, a version of the text known in the west as the Ave Maria. During the singing of this hymn the church's lights are dimmed and the doors are closed. [listen]

The Vespers thus ends on a note of praise and rejoicing, but in the All-Night Vigil the service continues with Matins, the early morning service. The next eight movements in Rachmaninov's plan are drawn from Matins, starting with a short Gloria (the "lesser doxology") before the reading of six psalms. This hymn of praise is radiant and sets the word "slava" (glory) in dense, rich chords which seem to swirl around us like clouds of incense. The calm conclusion sets the words, "O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall show forth your praise". [listen]

The psalms which are read after this stress man's sense of falling away from God, a sense emphasised by the stillness and semi-darkness of the church at this point in the liturgy. The dramatic mood then changes as the lamps are gradually re-lit during the next part of the service.

For this Rachmaninov's eighth movement sets a hymn of praise which is known as the Polyeleos. This has a double meaning, based on the root word "eleos" which can mean both mercy and oil. The text sung here contains the line, "for his mercy endures forever", so "polyeleos" can mean "much mercy". But with the oil lamps being re-lit at the same time, the sense of "much oil" is equally relevant. [listen]

The next movement contains several stanzas relating to the resurrection of Jesus, and is called the Evlogitaria. During this the priest continues censing the entire church, which had begun during the previous movement, as the choir's hymn contains the repeated refrain "Blessed are you, O Lord". [listen]

The following hymn is sung after the Matins Gospel is read. The Gospel book is brought into the centre of the church so that the congregation can venerate and kiss it, while the choir sings, "Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us bow down..." [listen]

The next movement, the eleventh in Rachmaninov's fifteen-movement scheme, is a version of the text known in the west as the Magnificat, the song of the Virgin on being told she was going to be the mother of the son of God. In the Russian Orthodox version, the verses are separated by a refrain which is translated, "More honourable than the Cherubim, and past compare more glorious than the Seraphim, you who without defilement bears God the Word, true birth-giver of God, we magnify you." Rachmaninov separates the verses of the canticle from the refrain by setting the former in a stern, heavier style, and the latter in a light, airy style. The aura of devoted mystery pervades every bar. [listen]

Another text familiar to those who know western sacred music - the Gloria - then follows. This is the "greater doxology" (equivalent to the second movement of the Ordinary of the Latin Mass) and follows the exclamation by the priest or deacon which says, "Glory to you, who has shown us the light". During an actual all-night vigil, this part of the liturgy would be sung during the rising of the sun. [listen]

The next two movements as set by Rachmaninov are both sung in concert performances of the Vespers, but liturgically they are alternatives; only one would be sung in an actual celebration of the All-Night Vigil. Each movement is a troparion or hymn, the first of which begins, "Today salvation has come into the world". The focus of the brief text is on the mystery of Christ rising from the grave. [listen]

The alternate troparion begins, "Having risen from the tomb", and similarly focuses on the mystery of the resurrection. It's one of the most beautiful moments of the whole piece, one I cherish whenever I conduct the work. It is intensely satisfying music. [listen]

I love that movement so much that I sometimes wish Rachmaninov had ended there, with the last of the eight movements drawn from Matins. Combined with the six from the Vespers proper that brings us to the end of the fourteenth movement.

But the All-Night Vigil not only encapsulates Vespers and Matins but also Prime, and the final movement set by Rachmaninov is the one movement from Prime which requires a musical setting; the rest of the service is chanted on a single note. The Kontaktion, or hymn of praise to the mother of God, is known as the akathist hymn because at this point everyone is standing. A-kathistos means "without sitting".

The hymn as set by Rachmaninov is short and joyful, but ends quietly, providing a radiant and satisfying conclusion to this remarkable composition. [listen]

Sergei Rachmaninov (1921)

Rachmaninov's setting of the All-Night Vigil was given its first performance in a concert, rather than liturgically, in Moscow on 10 March 1915. The choir was the Moscow Synodal Choir and the reaction of the public and the critics was rapturous. The performance was repeated five times within a month. The conductor was Nikolai Danilin, who apparently found enough bassi profundi to sing the low notes.

The popularity of Rachmaninov's work was swept aside, though, by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet Union's rules against religious music. As one writer has said, "No composition represents the end of an era so clearly as this liturgical work". Thankfully the work has become much better known in recent decades and it's regularly performed by choirs brave enough to tackle its many technical challenges. It is a gem.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2013.

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