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“All-Night Vigil” by Sergei Rachmaninoff

No. 1 Come, Let Us Worship
No. 2 Bless the Lord, O My Soul
No. 3 Blessed is the Man
No. 4 Gladsome Light
No. 5 Lord, Now Lettest Thou
No. 6 Rejoice, O Virgin
No. 7 The Six Psalms
No. 8 Praise the Name of the Lord
No. 9 Blessed Art Thou, O Lord
No. 10 Having Beheld the Resurrection
No. 11 My Soul Magnifies the Lord
No. 12 The Great Doxology
No. 13 The Troparion “Today Salvation Has Come”
No. 14 The Troparion “Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb”
No. 15 To Thee, the Victorious Leader

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Program notes by Vladimir Morosan

Within the broad range of styles and sonorities that characterize the world of choral music today, the Russian Orthodox choral tradition continues to stand out as one of humanity’s crowning and most compelling creative achievements in the realm of vocal musical expression. Why is this so?

Three reasons suggest themselves. First, the sacred music of Orthodoxy has always been and remains to this day the music of worship, maintaining its focus upon the Object of its purpose—to praise, to preach, and to entreat the Creator. It is thus a conduit of prayer rather than a means of entertainment, no matter how pious.

Second, Orthodox sacred music is music of beauty, that beauty which, according to Dostoyevsky, “will redeem the world.” Through long-standing, continuous tradition, going back two millennia, it draws its aesthetic values and expressive means from a heavenly, rather than earthly reality.

And third, Orthodox sacred music is, first and foremost, music of the word, fundamentally deriving its form and structure from reason-endowed human utterance, rather than delving into the more amorphous realm of purely musical sounds; thus it has remained a purely vocal idiom, allowing no instruments.

It is easy to see therefore, that whether one is a performer or a member of the audience, an event that features Russian Orthodox choral music envelops us in a remarkable artistic experience: one that reminds us of the right relationship between God and man; gives us a glimpse of heavenly beauty even while we are still on earth; and engages that unique intellectual capacity—verbal expression—that distinguishes human beings from all other living creatures.

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 Church musicians in Russia, whether the anonymous chant creators of Kievan Rus’ or prominent composers of later centuries, have long been inspired by the experience of the tenth-century pagan Slav emissaries sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev to find a new religion for his people. Describing their vision of divine beauty when they set foot into the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, they reported: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. One thing we do know is that God dwells here among His people.” Based on this report, St. Vladimir adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity and had his people—the common ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians—baptized in the year 988.  Along with the Christian faith and liturgy, the Slavs adopted the Orthodox Church’s well-established prohibition against the use of instruments.

Over the next ten centuries, the continuous development in Russia of a purely vocal tradition of sacred liturgical chant and choral singing constantly referenced this image of beauty and majesty of heavenly worship. Unison chants received initially from Byzantium were re-invented, sometimes rendered, on extra-solemn and festive occasions in other-worldly-sounding polyphony. As the centuries went on, Russian church singing was enriched by stylistic borrowings from the Polish Baroque, the Italian stile antico, Viennese Classicism, and Germanic Romanticism. Choral ensembles grew in size and came to include treble boys’ voices (and, starting with the 1880s, women’s voices as well). Musical settings grounded in chant gave way to the more florid style of the “sacred concerto,” in which contrasts of color among the various vocal groups and the octave doubling of voices fully exploited the expressive capabilities of the human vocal ensemble.

Towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these numerous influences came to be synthesized in the creations of the “New Russian Choral School.” Led by Tchaikovsky, composers such as Kastalsky, Gretchaninoff, Chesnokov, Rachmaninoff, and a host of others, reached into the national Russian treasure-trove of chants and the traditions of vocal expression to create new choral works of unprecedented color and textural richness, mindful as ever (to use Kastalsky’s words) “to create music that can be heard nowhere else but in a church.”

In a Western European musical culture dominated increasingly by instrumental music, the Russians continued to adhere to their ancestral legacy of unaccompanied choral sound, the musically-declaimed word, as the primary vehicle for liturgical worship and soulful, poetic expression. The mighty Russian choral tradition endured the vicissitudes of the turbulent twentieth century, overcoming the suppression of sacred music and religion under the Communists, as evidenced by the works of such composers as Georgy Sviridov and Arvo Pärt, and influencing the course of choral music throughout the world—in places as diverse as Scandinavia and the United States.

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Tonight’s concert focuses on hymns from the All-Night Vigil, one of the two primary “manifestations of the Kingdom” in the liturgical services of the Russian Orthodox Church, the other being the Divine Liturgy or Eucharist.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, opus 37, stands as the crowning achievement of the “Golden Age” of Russian Orthodox sacred choral music. This period, which began in the 1880s and lasted until the communist takeover in 1917, was a time when dozens of Russian composers, from such prominent figures as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov to lesser-known “choral specialists” such as Kastalsky, Chesnokov, Gretchaninoff, and Nikolsky, turned their creative energies to composing choral music on texts drawn from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. In doing so, they turned for melodic material to the well-spring of ancient unison chants—known by such exotic names as Znamenny (meaning “notated by means of znamiona or neumes”), Kievan (referring to Kiev, the “cradle” of Russian Orthodox Christianity and Eastern Slavic civilization), and Greek (stemming from latter-day Byzantium, the Second Rome).

To use these chants in modern-day liturgical circumstances, however, required dressing them up, so to speak, in new polyphonic attire. A long-standing problem that preoccupied Russian composers towards the late nineteenth century was what form this attire should take, so that Russian church music would sound characteristically Russian and not Italian or German. Important new directions were shown by the musicologist Stepan Smolensky (1848-1909), who brought to light the historical study of ancient chant, and the composer Alexander Kastalsky (1856-1926), who in his choral arrangements borrowed part-writing techniques from the Russian choral folk song. Both Smolensky and Kastalsky at various times headed the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing, whose splendid 80-voice choir of men and boys emerged as a virtuoso choral instrument capable of a vast range of dynamic nuances and choral timbres.

Such were the formative influences that shaped the creation of Rachmaninoff’s choral masterpieces, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, written in 1910, and the All-Night Vigil, written in 1915. The latter work was dedicated to Smolensky, who had been Rachmaninoff’s teacher at one point and attempted, unsuccessfully, to recruit his student into the field of church music; nevertheless, when Rachmaninoff did turn to church composition, he sought Kastalsky’s advice on the use of ancient chants; and the work was premiered March 10, 1915, in a concert by the Moscow Synodal Choir under the direction of Nikolai Danilin, a friend and classmate of Rachmaninoff’s.

Viewed in the broad context of twentieth-century European music, Rachmaninoff’s work is quite “conservative” and, at the same time, quintessentially Russian. As a setting of the All-Night Vigil service, it is a curious liturgical concatenation of three services—Vespers, Matins, and First Hour—which was introduced in Russia in the fourteenth century, but proved to be popular and enduring in Russia alone of all Orthodox nations. For his setting Rachmaninoff chose fifteen major psalms and hymns that form the unchanging framework of the Resurrectional Vigil (the service celebrated every Saturday evening).

The music is for chorus a cappella, the traditional vocal complement in the Russian Orthodox Church, which has maintained the ancient-Christian patristic prohibition against musical instruments of any kind. Ten of the fifteen hymns are based on unison chant melodies drawn from the service as it would have been sung in medieval Russia; for the remaining five sections Rachmaninoff composed what amount to his own chant melodies. As in all chant-based works, the sacred text occupies a position of prime importance. In fact it serves as the main form-determining element in each section. Moreover, to ensure the clear declamation of the text, the choral texture is predominately homorhythmic: there is very little imitative polyphony and no fugal writing whatsoever. The tonal vocabulary is quite traditional, eschewing all elements of “modernism.”

Within these seemingly austere limits, Rachmaninoff created a monumental work that elevates the spirit by its lofty expressiveness and captivates the ear by its sheer beauty. Through the fixed texts of the Vigil—the sung prayers, psalms, and hymns—the composer depicts the epic grandeur of humanity’s worshipful encounter with its Creator. The vesperal portion of the service focuses on the themes of the Creation and the coming into it of the Eternal Light—the Incarnation of Christ. The matins portion has a different emphasis: the celebration (which takes place every Sunday) of the single most important event in Christian cosmology—the Resurrection of Christ. (The Russian word for Sunday is voskresen’ye—Resurrection.)

As his musical vehicle, Rachmaninoff uses a living, breathing instrument—the human chorus—in a way that few composers have used it before or since. His choral writing makes full use of the rich sonority and timbral colors that were developed by his predecessors in the Russian choral school of the late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries. Voices combine and divide in a seemingly endless variety of ways, soaring heavenward and plunging into the depths, praising and supplicating, as the liturgical text and the individual vision of the composer direct them. At times, solo voices and groups of voices take on dramatic identities, yet the persistent use of chant keeps their utterings within the epic realm.

Every Orthodox service opens with an intoned exclamation by the celebrants that declares and establishes the real presence, here on Earth, of the Heavenly Kingdom. The Vigil opens with a proclamation of “Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-creating, and Undivided Trinity,” which is followed by a majestic choral call to worship, “Priidite, poklonimsia” (Psalm 95:6). The multi-layered melody is of Rachmaninoff’s invention, but its undulating, step-wise movement and unsymmetric, text-related structure at once establish its kinship with the ancient Znamenny Chant.

Vespers begins, as it does every day with Psalm 104, “Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda,” which hymns the wonders of God’s creation. The use of the solo voice personalizes this song of praise, while the choral voices depict two contrasting realms—the earthly and the heavenly.

The singing and recitation of psalms is an essential element of every Orthodox service, and for this purpose the Psalter is divided into twenty sections of roughly equal length. On Saturdays selected verses from Psalms 1, 2 and 3, “Blazhen muzh,” are always sung. Significantly, they speak of righteousness, but within a world in which evil (“the council of the wicked”) already exists. The three-fold Alleluia refrains are reminiscent of those once sung by the entire assembly.

After another set of fixed psalms (of a penitential nature, which Rachmaninoff did not set) comes the “hymn of light”—“Svete tihiy”, an ancient Christian hymn that dates at least to the third century. The hymn originally accompanied the entrance of the clergy into the church and the lighting of the evening lamp at sunset. The simple four-note motive of the Kievan chant is transmuted into a shimmering musical evocation of the Light Eternal. A solo voice lifts up a song of praise to the Trinity.

Having encountered the Savior, the Light of the world, the Church sings in the words of St. Symeon, “Nïne otpushchayeshi” (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace). The soloist personifies the venerable elder against a lullaby-like motif in the choral parts. It is understandable why Rachmaninoff wished for this hymn to be sung at his funeral.

After giving due praise to God, the Orthodox Church always pays homage to the Virgin Mary—the Theotokos (“the one who gave birth to God”).  “Bogoroditse Devo,” perhaps the most widely-known hymn from Rachmaninoff’s cycle, captures both the gentle simplicity of the angelic greeting and the awe-struck glorification of her response to God.

At this point the vesperal portion of the All-Night Vigil draws to a close. Matins begins with the invitatory verses “Glory to God in the highest…” (“Slava v vïshnih Bogu”) (Luke 2:14) and “O Lord, open Thou my lips…” (“Ghospodi, ustne moi otverzeshi”…) (Ps. 51:15), and the ringing of bells, which Rachmaninoff masterfully depicts in layering and juxtaposing the choral voices.

One of the musical high points of the Vigil service is “Hvalite imia Ghospodne” (verses from Ps. 135–136), the Polyeleos—the hymn of “many mercies.” All the lights in the church are turned on, the doors are opened, and the clergy in full vestments proceed to the center of the church to stand with the people. Musically, two layers are evident: the virile, earthy Znamenny chant melody sung by the altos and basses and above it, the sopranos and tenors, wafting like choirs of cherubim and seraphim.

The dramatic events of the Resurrection now unfold in a set of narrative hymns, each introduced by the piously whispered refrain (of the faithful spectators) “Blagosloven yesi, Ghospodi.” Contrasts in the vocal scoring depict the cosmic drama occurring simultaneously in the heavenly realm (“The angelic council was amazed…”) and on earth among the myrrh-bearing women, as they journey early in the morning to anoint Christ’s body and instead encounter an angelic messenger. As the joyous message is reinforced again and again, the murmuring crowd of faithful emerges and joins in a universal hymn of praise “Alleuia.”

The faithful’s response to the Resurrection continues in the next hymn, “Voskreseniye Hristovo videvshe,” which in the context of an actual service is sung immediately following the reading of Gospel account of the Resurrection. Some of the most austere and powerful music occurs in this section, as the text recalls the terrible sacrifice on the cross that preceded the ultimate triumph over death.

The Canticle of Mary, “Velichit dusha moya Ghospoda,” serves as the Matins counterpart of “Bogoroditse Devo”— in Vespers. Mary’s words are not treated at all in a dramatic fashion, however. By composing a heavy chant-like melody that mainly resides in the basses, Rachmaninoff treats Mary’s verses as an epic, prophetic utterance, which is taken up by all. Contrasted with this is the refrain “Chestneyshuyu Heruvim…” in which Mary’s high rank in the heavenly hierarchy is exalted.

In terms of textual depth and musical complexity, the Great Doxology “Slava v vïshnih Bogu” stands out as the main hymn of the entire All-Night Vigil. The text is carried by a simple Znamenny Chant melody (borrowed earlier for the “Lesser Doxology” at the start of Matins), which Rachmaninoff masterfully distributes to different voices. Every Christian theme, from glorification and thanksgiving to repentance and supplication, is contained in the text of this ancient (fourth century) hymn; and Rachmaninoff’s music at every turn seems to resonate appropriately. As the hymn drives towards its culmination in the closing Thrice-holy, Rachmaninoff’s treatment of the chorus becomes truly orchestral, again evoking images of bells.

The Great Doxology is followed by one of two short hymns to the Resurrection, which are sung on alternate weeks in a liturgical context. Rachmaninoff included both of them in his Vigil. After the musical intensity of the Doxology, these hymns serve as a point of repose, inviting one to meditate upon the exalted mystery of the Resurrection.

The Matins service has ended and the dismissal has been pronounced. But the All-Night Vigil is not yet over, as First Hour, a brief service from the daily monastic cycle, is chanted. At the end of the service, after the final prayer and blessing, it is a Russian custom to sing a hymn from the feast of Annunciation, “Vzbrannoy voyevode,” again in honor of the Mother of God. Rachmaninoff uses this triumphant hymn of victory to bring his All-Night Vigil to a resounding close.

At concerts of Orthodox liturgical music it is traditional to refrain from applause (until the very end of the program).

Vladimir Morosan
San Diego, California