All-Night Vigil (Vespers),
Opus 37 - Segey Rakmaninov (1873 - 1943)
recordings conclusively demonstrate, Rakhmaninov was one of the very
greatest of pianists, who enjoyed a hugely successful international solo
career after his emigration to America in 1917. However, it is as a
composer that we now remember him, and though his popular reputation
rests on just a handful of works - principally the second symphony, the
second and third piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a theme of
Paganini – in fact his output was extensive and wide-ranging.
Although his choral music comprises just three major works - the
Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1910), the choral symphony
The Bells (1913) and the All-Night Vigil (1915) - all
are of the very finest quality.
Rakhmaninov was not satisfied with his Liturgy of St John Chrysostom,
and so five years later embarked upon another sacred work - a setting of
the All-Night Vigil, commonly referred to as ‘Rakhmaninov’s Vespers’.
This is a somewhat misleading title since the All-Night Vigil actually
comprises four services altogether: Vespers, Matins, Lauds and Prime.
The Russian Orthodox Church marks the liturgical day from one sunset to
the next, and so Sunday services actually begin on Saturday evening with
Vespers and continue through the night until Sunday morning, when
Matins, Lauds and Prime are celebrated.
Vigil was composed early in 1915. From the outset it was recognised
as a masterpiece of choral writing, and one of the pinnacles of Russian
Orthodox church music. The text is written in Old Church Slavonic which
was, and remains, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox
Church. There is no reason why the piece should not be performed during
a service, but its technical difficulty and large scale place it beyond
the scope of all but the most able choirs, suggesting that it was
intended for concert rather than liturgical use, though Rakhmaninov
himself made no pronouncement on this point.
he was not a practising Christian, Rakhmaninov held in high regard the
poetry, music and traditions of the Orthodox Church, in much the same
way that in this country Vaughan Williams, a self-confessed agnostic,
was repeatedly inspired by the traditions of the Anglican Church. And
just as Vaughan Williams was seeking to re-connect English music to its
ancient roots after a lengthy period of Austro-German dominance, so too
Rakhmaninov, in his choral music at least, rejected the German and
Italian musical influences of the previous two centuries. Following the
lead set by Tchaikovsky in his 1882 Vespers, he turned for
inspiration to the early Russian Church’s traditional chants. The entire
piece appears to be based on authentic Orthodox chants, but in only nine
of the fifteen movements are these genuine; in the other movements
Rakhmaninov created his own chant-like melodies, and these he described
as ‘conscious counterfeits’.
Rakhmaninov’s immensely varied and imaginative vocal scoring, much of it
for at least eight parts, is one of the most striking features of the
Vigil, and has aptly been described as ‘choral orchestration’. He
employs a number of techniques to achieve these extraordinary
sonorities, including the judicious choice of solo voices, small groups
or the full chorus; a wide dynamic range, from hushed pianissimos
to full-blooded triple-fortes; the careful placing of the voices
in high, middle or low registers. Perhaps the two techniques most
obviously borrowed from orchestral writing are the way in which all
sections of the choir, including the basses, are regularly given
important melodic leads, sometimes doubled at the octave to give a
different colouring; and the spacing of the harmonies, from simple,
closely-written four part chords to rich, multi-divisional ones covering
nearly four octaves, very much as strings would be orchestrated.
Rakhmaninov’s melodic style, though, is very different from the lush
romanticism of his great orchestral works; listeners expecting soaring,
expansive tunes are likely to be disappointed. Because his melodic lines
grow out of Orthodox chants, they move either in steps or small
intervals, and despite the grand scale of the work as a whole, this
imparts a very personal and intimate dimension to the music.
1917 revolution all church music was suppressed, and the Vigil
was then only rarely heard. It was not until the 1960s that it became
known in the West. After the first performance Rakhmaninov commented,
‘Even in my dreams I could not have imagined that I would write such a
work.’ As we listen to this extraordinary, magnificent piece of music,
it becomes apparent why he made such a remark.
using these notes You are more than welcome to use
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