Rachmaninoff Vespers


MAY FESTIVAL CHORUS Robert Porco, director
The May Festival Chorus is endowed by the Betsy & Alex C. Young Chair
MAY FESTIVAL YOUTH CHORUS Matthew Swanson, director


Raduysia, radost Tvoyu vospevayu


All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

1. Priidite, poklonimsya
2. Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda
3. Blazhen muzh


Tsaryu nebesniy


All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

4. Svete tikhyi
5. Nyne otpushchayeshi
6. Bogoroditse Devo


All-Night Vigil, Op. 52

10. Ot yunosti


All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

7. Slava v vyshnikh Bogu
8. Khvalite imya Ghospodne
9. Blagosloven yesi, Ghospodi


Angel vopiyashe—Valaam Chant

10. Ot yunosti


All-Night Vigil, Op. 37

11. Velichit dusha moya Ghospoda
14. Voskres iz groba
15. Vzbrannoy voyevode pobeditelnaya

There will be no intermission at this concert


All-Night Vigil Service, Op. 37

Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg in the Novgorod district of Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, CA
Work composed: 1915
Premiere: March 23, 1915 in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Danilin
May Festival notable performances: Most recent (also the premiere): May 1998, Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Robert Porco conducting
Duration: approx. 60 minute

Though the tradition of native opera and concert music in Russia can be traced only as far back as Mikhail Glinka’s epochal A Life for the Tsar of 1836, that country cherishes a lineage of indigenous folksong and liturgical melody that stretches into the hoary mists of antiquity. The earliest sacred music in Russia has been dated to the tenth century, when it arrived along with the ecclesiastical dogma from Byzantium that helped convert the nation to Christianity. As happened in the West, Russia absorbed foreign influences and mixed them with national idioms to create a distinctive style of liturgical music in which certain prayers and items of worship were sung to musical formulas or specific melodies. These chants were passed down as part of the oral tradition from teacher to student (instruments, even the organ, have always been forbidden in Orthodox services—this is exclusively vocal music). However, by the 12th century, the body of sacred music had become so large and widely dispersed that a system of pitch notation became necessary to preserve its integrity. This musical notation—znamenny, from the word for “sign,” znamya—served as an integral part of Orthodox custom for over 500 years and allowed for the considerable expansion and elaboration of the chant repertoire. Znamenny chant achieved its greatest efflorescence during the 16th century, but thereafter was supplanted by simpler liturgical styles and by polyphonic compositions from Italy, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere. The music largely went out of use by the 18th century, though it continued to be sung by a splinter group called the “Old Believers,” and its dark, richly colored, unhurried mode of performance was folded into Russian folk music.

Though the active performance and the knowledge of the complicated notation of znamenny chant waned, the ancient style was not forgotten. Early in the 19th century, a group of Russian amateurs interested in their country’s cultural history began collecting the ancient manuscripts and rendering the old znamenny signs into conventional musical notation. In a subsequent scholarly undertaking paralleling the study and re-evaluation of Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks at Solesmes in France, Russian musicologists explored the sources and performance of znamenny chant, a movement largely centered on the work of Stepan Smolensky (1848–1909), professor of church music history at the Moscow Conservatory and, from 1889, director of the Imperial Synodal Choir in that city. Smolensky incorporated znamenny chants into the services and encouraged their wider dispersion in their original monophonic versions as well as in appropriate harmonizations. Tchaikovsky provided simple chordal settings for 17 of the ancient melodies in his Vesper Service (Op. 52, 1882), and newly composed his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Op. 41, 1878) upon their stylistic foundation. In 1887, Alexander Kastalsky (1856–1926), a pupil of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, was appointed to the Synodal Choir, and soon showed exceptional talents both as a composer of sacred music and as a researcher into znamenny chant. It was Kastalsky’s investigations that established the relationship between the old religious music and Russian folksong, suggesting that the rich harmonic style of folksong could be appropriately applied to the unadorned chant melodies. It was Smolensky and later Kastalsky who revealed to the young Sergei Rachmaninoff the beauties of traditional Russian Orthodox music.

Rachmaninoff was not a demonstrably religious man but, like Stravinsky, he was brought up in Orthodoxy and throughout his life allowed it to occupy an honored place in his mind and heart as a vital manifestation of Russian culture and history. Rachmaninoff’s first important sacred vocal composition was the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1910 (an earlier small choral hymn dates from 1893), set to the same text as Tchaikovsky had used 30 years before, but he felt that the work “solves the problem of Russian Church music very inadequately.” It was a magnificent performance of his Liturgy by the Synodal Choir, however, that inspired Rachmaninoff to return to the liturgical forms in early 1915 and write his All-Night Vigil Service, one of the towering choral masterpieces of the 20th century. He had composed little for well over a year because of the difficult logistical and emotional circumstances imposed by World War I, as well as his extensive touring to many Russian cities with his Second and Third Concertos in an effort to raise funds for the war effort. Back in Moscow in January and February, however, he wrote his All-Night Vigil Service with exceptional speed, in less than two weeks according to his own account. The work, dedicated to Smolensky, was premiered by the Synodal Choir directed by Nikolai Danilin at a war benefit concert on March 23 in the Great Hall of the Nobility in Moscow. The composer noted in his autobiography that “the first performance…gave me an hour of the happiest satisfaction”; the response of critics, audience and performers was so unanimously laudatory that five additional performances had to be scheduled to satisfy the demand to hear this new creation. Rachmaninoff was particularly pleased that his teacher Sergei Taneyev, the country’s leading pedagogue of counterpoint, praised the work’s polyphonic writing. The All-Night Vigil Service remained one of Rachnaminoff’s favorites among his own compositions: he requested that the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”) be sung at his funeral, and in a 1932 New York Times interview he cited the Vigil and the cantata The Bells as his two best works.

Though it is often referred to as his “Vespers,” Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil Service covers a considerably wider range of ecclesiastical activities than just those included in the penultimate service of the typical Christian day. The Russian Vigil service is celebrated on Saturday night and before feast days as preparation for Mass the following morning. In the early church and in traditional monastery life, the Vigil begins at sunset on Saturday evening with Vespers, and continues throughout the night almost without interruption until Matins and Prime at dawn the following morning. (In parish churches, the ervice occupies about two hours on Saturday evening.) The symbolic descent into darkness and the return to light evoke the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and it is significant that the texts dealing with the Easter story stand at the center point of the observance. Rachmaninoff provided 15 numbers for the Vigil based on the sacred texts and melodies—the music of five was original with him (his friend Joseph Yasser called these “a conscious counterfeit of the original”), but the remaining movements incorporate existing chants from three sources: Nos. 2 and 15 are based on Greek models; Nos. 4 and 5 on Kiev chants; and Nos. 7–9 and 12–14 on znamenny melodies.

In his very last composition, the Symphonic Dances of 1940, Rachmaninoff juxtaposed a fragment of the znamenny chant from the Resurrection hymn “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord” (No. 9) with the fatalistic Gregorian sequence Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), and inscribed the word “Alliluya” above the Russian melody. He may well have implied some programmatic meaning for the music by using this device, one which sought to renew the expressive content of his beloved Vigil, though he was silent on the matter. As the Alliluya succeeds the Dies Irae, did the composer, sick and nearing the end of his life, mean to show that the Church conquers death? That optimism overcomes sadness? Rachmaninoff said only that “a composer always has his own ideas of his works, but I do not believe he ever should reveal them. Each listener should find his own meaning in the music.” The expressive intent of the All-Night Vigil Service—the fervor inspired by ancient faith and mother country during those years before Rachmaninoff was torn from his homeland by the cataclysm of 1917—seems more immediate and overt than that of the cryptic Symphonic Dances. Wrote John Culshaw, “The most restrained and personal of Rachmaninoff’s works, the All-Night Vigil Service is nevertheless his most austerely beautiful music. That Rachmaninoff was at heart a deeply religious man we need not doubt.… Beneath his somewhat forbidding exterior, there lay a deep faith in the ideal of immortal peace and love; no other reason will account for the spirit behind the Vigil.”
—Richard E. Rodda

Additional Works on this Program While the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil is a monument of the choral repertoire, it is not a comprehensive representation of the music needed for all-night vigil liturgy. Rachmaninoff only uses the ordinary texts of the liturgy, or the texts which are unchanged from day to day. By contrast, he omits the propers, or texts which change each day to accord with particular feasts and liturgical observances. In this performance, the May Festival Youth Chorus offers a sampling of proper texts from various seasons of the liturgical year. Additionally, the selected compositions illustrate various styles of Russian Orthodox music that predate Rachmaninoff’s work. The opening kant (a paraliturgical song) is an anonymous composition from the middle of the 17th century addressing Mary, the mother of Jesus. The chant heard before Svete Tikhyi has its origins in the vespers service for Pentecost, but appears at the beginning of almost every Russian Orthodox service. One movement of Tchaikovsky’s setting of the All-Night Vigil appears before Slava v vyshnikh Bogu, and Balakirev’s harmonization of Valaam chant (one of many distinct repertoires of Russian liturgical song) is proper to the liturgy of matins. The May Festival Youth Chorus extends a special thanks to Dr. Michael Ciavaglia for his assistance in the selection of these works
—Matthew Swanson