Embarking on Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers

After a successful autumn (the Chicago Tribune’s music critic John Von Rhein designated our Arvo Pärt at Eighty concert “the Year’s Finest Choral Performance”), Chorale has embarked on preparations for our March presentation of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. As preparation for this event, I quote from program notes compiled by Chorale alumnus Justin Flosi, seven years ago: “Written at the height of the renaissance of Russian sacred choral music, Rachmaninoff’s few sacred works remain the unrivaled jewels in the crown of the Orthodox musical tradition and epitomize the work of the New Russian Choral School. Composers of the school (including Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff, and Chesnokov) drew their inspiration from Old Church Slavonic chant and Russian choral folk song, departing from a century and a half of domination by Italian and German models. Led by musicologist Stepan Smolensky, who headed the Moscow Synodical School of Church Singing and pioneered the historical study of ancient chant, these composers created an entirely Russian choral style marked by an endless array of dynamic nuances and choral timbres.

Sergei Rachmaninoff“Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil, op. 37) was composed over just two weeks in January and February of 1915 and dedicated to Smolensky, the composer’s tutor. Johann von Gardner has proclaimed it a “liturgical symphony,” and indeed, Rachmaninoff masterfully exploits the New School’s technique of “choral orchestration,” varying the choral color extensively, dividing the choir into as many as eleven parts, calling for precise articulations, and dictating a vivid spectrum of dynamic gradations. From the tradition of Russian folk song, Rachmaninoff borrows the technique of “counter-voice polyphony,” skillfully integrating into his composition parallel voice-leading, melodic lines above a drone, and imitation between a constantly changing number of voices. And yet, Rachmaninoff’s dazzling technique never calls attention to itself; rather, it serves at all times to sustain the sacred text in its position of prime importance.

“The All-Night Vigil service was introduced to Russia in the fourteenth century. In the words of Vladimir Morosan, it is a “curious liturgical concatenation” combining the services of Vespers, Matins, and Prime. Celebrated on the eves of holy days, it lasted from sunset to sunrise in the medieval church (although modern reforms have shortened the service). Remarkably, Rachmaninoff sets the entire thing—all fifteen hymns, psalms, and prayers of the Resurrectional Vigil. Though deeply spiritual, Rachmaninoff was at odds with the organized religious establishment (which opposed his marriage to his first cousin, Natalie Satin) and not intimately familiar with the traditional musical settings of the Church’s liturgy. This may help explain his original and inventive approach in the All-Night Vigil.

“Rachmaninoff’s use of melodic material is both innovative and exhaustive, at once original and steeped in tradition. Drawing from all three ancient chant traditions (Znammeny, meaning “notated with neumes,” Greek School, and Kiev School), nine of the fifteen movements are based on actual chant melodies. For the remaining six, Rachmaninoff composed new material, inspired by chants; he called these movements “conscious counterfeits.” The resulting fusion of old and new material overflows with an intensely expressive melodic richness. As the voices by turns rise heavenward and sink into the depths, Rachmaninoff portrays the essence of humankind’s worship of the Divine, from its most exuberant exultation to its most sincere supplication.

“Such sumptuous sounds illumine the epic grandeur of the events commemorated in the All-Night Vigil. After the opening call to worship, the Vespers section depicts the Creation and the incarnation of Christ. The Matins portion turns to a celebration of the central event in Christian cosmology: Christ’s resurrection. Thus, spiritually, liturgically, textually, and musically, the work operates on an immense and expansive scale. Francis Maes positions it at the summit of the Orthodox tradition, stating that, “The work satisfies all liturgical demands, but goes beyond them in the same way that Bach’s B Minor Mass and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis do.” As those works serve as capstones to their respective traditions, so Russian choral music culminates in Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.”

I could not have said it nearly so well.