Program Notes

January 24th & 31st, 2016
St. Paul Church, Cambridge; David Hoose, conductor
Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College; David Hoose, conductor


Sergei Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil, op. 37

Notes by David Hoose and Harlow Robinson

1. Пріидите, поклонимся (Come, Let Us Worship)
The deacon and priest offer an invocation, the chorus answers with a calm “Amin,” and all launch into an energetic call to worship. All of the movement’s four phrases begin identically, but each takes a different path, and the middle two blossom impressively. The music is freely composed, not based on an existing chant.
2. Благослови, душе моя, Господа (Bless the Lord, O My Soul)
Following the first movement’s C major half close, the second movement slips down to its closest neighbor, A minor. The music turns intimate, and an alto soloist intones a traditional Greek chant:

[The chant incipits are shown here in the key of C, but Rachmaninoff uses them in widely varying keys.]

The chorus moves fluidly between accompanying the soloist and offering its own response. Divisions of the chorus into many independent layers, quasi-orchestral tune-and-accompaniment relationships, and forays into the lowest extremities of the bass voices, all reveal some of Rachmaninoff’s creative and original treatment of the vocal ensemble that he will explore throughout. By the movement’s hushed close, the music has glided back to C major, the Vigil’s overarching tonal center.

3. Блаженъ мужъ (Blessed Be the Man)
Though inspired by a Znamenny chant, this music is Rachmaninoff’s own, an imitation of chant that he called his “counterfeit.” The text focuses on portions of Psalms 1 and 2, depicting salvation through repentance. The swinging refrain, “Alliluiya,” is hypnotic enough to take hold as the movement’s focus. Three “Alliluiya” phrases, each in a lower key than the last, dance gently to the end, the movement settling back into its veiled D minor center.

4. Свѣте тихій (Gladsome Light)
Lifting up to a radiant E-flat major, the tenors suspend in air like a shaft of light. The women’s entrance adds luminescence, and all float free of any connection to the earth. When the basses enter, near the bottom of their range, the upper voices continue on their own path. Then, together, the voices ascend magically to the even brighter key of E major. Again the voices sail on high, but the basses settle everyone back into E-flat. The movement seems to have come home, but the last phrase unexpectedly turns to C minor, a harmony that relates closely to the movement’s E-flat center and reaches back to the large tonal center, C major.

The movement is based on a Kievan chant, given by the tenors at the beginning.

5. Нынѣ отпущаеши (Lord, Now Lettest Thou) The story of the servant Simeon, from the Book of Luke (set by many composers in Latin: Nunc dimittis), is at the heart of this very personal movement. Gentle breathing, soothingly swaying altos and tenors surround a single tenor who, singing music based a Kievan chant, asks to be released from the bonds of earthly life.

The previous movement’s late, unprepared move to C minor and the distant, cloudy key in which this prayer begins (G-flat major? E-flat minor?) make the music seem remote, separate from all that comes before. However, the key of B-flat minor eventually assumes the gravitational center, and the basses’ astounding descent to the lowest B-flat in their range calmly folds the movement into the grave. This gentle music was the composer’s favorite of the Vigil, and it was his wish—not to be fulfilled—that it be sung at his funeral.

6. Богородице Дѣво (Rejoice, O Virgin)
The tone brightens considerably with this lullaby setting of the Ave Maria. Complex harmony, counterpoint and texture vanish; the music is pared to just four voice parts, with occasional divisions into wafting parallel thirds. With this music, as gleaming as the previous movement was mysterious, the Vespers portion of the All-Night Vigil comes to a simple close. Although the preceding movement feels like an isolated island, the first six movements merge into a serene whole.

7. Слава въ вышнихъ (The Six Psalms)
The beginning of the Matins is based on a Znamanny chant, a melody that will reappear and develop grandly in the twelfth and largest movement.

8. Хвалите имя Господне (Praise the Name of the Lord)
The sopranos and tenors—Cherubim and Seraphim—continue their bell ringing from on high, and the altos and basses give their spirited praises. All evaporates, and the men, divided into four parts, paint an older world, “Blessed the Lord from Zion, he who dwells in Jerusalem.” The vigor returns, and even the angels cannot resist joining the altos’ and basses’ excitement. The movement is based on a Znamenny chant.

9. Благословенъ еси, Господи (Blessed Art Thou, O Lord)
With a disquieting shift from the warmth of A-flat major to the clouds of D minor, the subject of the music turns to the crucifixion. In a call-and-response style typical of Russian psalm singing, the lower voices call repeatedly, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes,” and the upper voices answer with more and more complex utterances. An energetic musical idea, one that will reappear in Rachmaninoff’s last composition, the Symphonic Dances, drives to a feverish pitch. This movement, like the previous, is based on a Znamenny chant.

10. Воскресеніе Христово видѣвше (Hymn of the Resurrection)
In muscular octaves, men announce the story of the resurrection, and the women answer thoughtfully. This orchestral dialogue continues throughout the remainder of the piece with the exception of two powerful moments, when all unite in wonder and praise.

11. Величитъ душа моя Господа (My Soul Magnifies the Lord)
The Magnificat unfolds patiently, with brighter refrains (“More honorable than the Cherubim….”) interspersed in increasingly beguiling settings. The rich, slow music could be nothing but Russian, but the lighter music suggests something of the French Renaissance.

12. Великое славословіе (The Great Doxology)
The setting of the Great Doxology is the largest of the All-Night Vigil’s fifteen movements. Tempos, musical textures, and text settings vary throughout, and the resulting complex structure—created largely by the expansive text—make this movement the work’s dramatic high point. The opening words and music recall the chant that had initiated the Matins, but now sung more briskly.

The music soon abandons the straightforward texture of the seventh movement for more elaborate layers. After a sweeping gesture closes the first section, an abrupt shift to a rhythmic ritual marks the beginning of the second. The character hints at the world of Stravinsky’s Les noces, composed eight years later, though the younger composer delighted in the primal, and Rachmaninoff’s heart drew out the ecstatic. This second section, too, ends with a shift in energy, at first solemn and then expanding dramatically.

Three waves of pleading (“più forte ad ogni repressa”), sung by the altos, drive the third large section. After a passing reflection by the whole chorus (“Lord, Thou has been our refuge from generation to generation”), the altos renew their anxious cries. The other voices accompany, comment, and eventually join the altos. The excited rhythmic ritual returns, and builds to a thrilling climax before quickly subsiding.

13. Тропарь. Днесь спасеніе (The Troparion “Today Salvation”)
This movement and the next are a pair, both short hymns or tropes that explain differently the relationship between Jesus’ sacrifice-resurrection and our salvation. This first of the two floats dreamily, but led by an image of victory over death, expands into a breathtaking climax. The hymn is based on a Znamenny chant.
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14. Тропарь. Воскресъ изъ гроба (The Troparion “Thou Didst Rise”)
Based upon a different but very similar sounding Znamenny chant, this movement is carried by an impressively high-flying tenor line that gives the piece heightened intensity and weight.

15. Взбранной воеводѣ (To Thee, the Victorious Leader)
Although each of the previous pair of movements began in different keys, they both quickly affirmed C major as their tonal center. Now, with C major secure, the final movement, a hymn of thanksgiving, soars with unencumbered joy. The chant on which it is based is a Russian “Greek” chant (the reference to the Mother of God is in Greek).

Beginning in quiet exhilaration, the music climbs to a magnificent peak. Then, with a glorious melisma on the final word of “Rejoice, O unwedded Bride,” the All-Night Vigil unfurls, spinning into a satisfyingly quiet close.

—David Hoose

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Vsenoshchnoe bdenie (All-Night Vigil) in two weeks during early 1915, when he was forty-one. The work was given its premiere on March 10th of that year, sung by the Moscow Synodical Choir and conducted by Nikolai Danilin. The Vigil is for unaccompanied chorus, with each of the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts dividing as many as three ways, and with solos for alto and tenor. The work lasts about an hour.

“We didn’t know whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

According to medieval Russian chronicles, this is how a Russian delegation visiting Byzantium in the tenth century described the mystical splendor of the music and pageantry of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. After hearing the delegation’s report, Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir (ruler from 980-1015) decreed that the young Russian state would adopt Eastern Orthodoxy as its official religion.

Almost immediately, church personnel from Greece and Byzantium arrived in Kiev to provide instruction in the writing and performance of music. The singing in the Orthodox liturgy was a form of monodic unison chant, performed without accompaniment and usually by male choirs. Occasionally, for purposes of dramatic contrast, a drone was used, or the choir was divided into two antiphonal groups. Orthodox law forbade the use of any musical instruments during the liturgy, a fact that carried obvious implications for the subsequent development of Russian music.

Over time, chant imported from Byzantium and Greece evolved independently. Several external political factors led to this divergence: the conquest of Russia by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Both events served to isolate Russia almost completely from the outside world until the late seventeenth century.

During this period, Russian Orthodox liturgical music flourished in the country’s many monasteries, reaching a high level of artistry and stylistic individuality. The form of chant that developed in Russia is known as znamenny raspev—znamenny chant, from the Russian word znamya, or “sign,” referring to the primitive symbols used in notation.

Initially written down in neumes, able to be deciphered only with great difficulty, Russian unison chant began to adopt to western-style notation in the late eighteenth century. An anthology produced by the Moscow Synodal Typography in 1772 served as a crucial basis for development of western-style harmonizations and adaptations produced by generations of composers, including Dmitri Bortnyansky, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky, Alexander Arkhangelsky, Pavel Chesnokov, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff’s two large liturgical compositions, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the All-Night Vigil (1915), are the most important twentieth-century contributions to this repertoire.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was not a church-going man. When he married Natalia Satina in 1902, Russian Orthodox church officials had to be bribed by his relatives to provide the necessary certification that he regularly worshipped and took confession. Like all Russians, however, he absorbed the atmosphere of Orthodox spirituality and aesthetics from his surroundings, having been taken by his grandmother to visit churches and monasteries in the area near Novgorod. The wild ringing of the church bells that were essential to the Russian Orthodox musical ritual also deeply impressed the young Rachmaninoff. Later, he incorporated bell-like sound effects into his own music, including his The Bells (a setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem) and the All-Night Vigil.

In the twenty sections of his earlier Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Rachmaninoff used only his own musical material, creating melodies that strongly resembled traditional Orthodox chants. In the Vigil, however, he took a more self-consciously historical approach, using ten authentic chant melodies, as well as five of his own invention (calling them “conscious counterfeits”) as the basis for the fifteen numbers. Of the ten authentic melodies, six are old-style znamenny chants (Nos. 7, 8, 9, 12, 13 and 14), and four are of more recent Greek (2, 15) and Kievan (4, 5) origin.

The work’s Russian title—Vsenoshchnoe bdenie—means literally “The all-night staying awake,” but the work is known popularly as the All-Night Vigil. Celebrated on Saturday evenings and church holidays, the Vigil service combines two services (the evening Vespers and morning Matins) usually held in monasteries between Saturday evening and Sunday mornings. According to Orthodox music expert Father Philip Steer, “The chants used at Vespers tend to be softer and more lyrical in their tone than those of Matins, reflecting also the gentle candlelight of the evening, in contrast to the growing brightness of the new day’s sunshine.” In Rachmaninoff’s setting, the first six movements form the Vespers and the last nine, the Matins. When performed as part of a service, the movements would be interrupted by prayers, litanies, readings and refrains. Russian Orthodox versions of several Latin hymns can be found in the text: “Nunc dimittis” (No. 5), “Ave Maria” (6), “Magnificat” (11), and “Gloria in excelsis” (12).

By the time he composed the Vigil, Rachmaninoff was a popular and highly-paid pianist, a seasoned conductor, and the composer of two symphonies, three piano concertos, scores of piano pieces, more than sixty songs, and three operas. Rachmaninoff’s operatic experience is evident in the Vigil, particularly in the movements that include soloists. Although Rachmaninoff restrained his lush late-romantic style, in response to the texts and out of respect for religious decorum, the Vigil features plenty of the ripe harmonies and evocative tonal painting familiar from his other works.

Traditional Russian orthodox chant possesses a very free rhythmic structure, without conventional bar lines and meter, unfolding in a flowing unbroken line. Eight of the fifteen numbers in the Vigil follow this convention and have no time signatures. Another characteristic feature is the extremely low writing for the basses. At the end of No. 5 (“Lord, Now Lettest Thou”), the basses descend slowly to a B-flat below the staff. Rachmaninoff later recalled that the conductor Danilin asked him, “‘Where on earth are we going to find such basses? They’re as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Of course, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make of Russian basses!” With its soaring, heavenly tenor solo line and rocking, lullaby-like accompaniment, this was also Rachmaninoff’s favorite number in the Vigil, and he said he wished that it be sung at his own funeral. However, he died in Los Angeles, and his request proved impossible.

The narrative traced by the texts and music of the Vigil builds to a climax in the story of Christ’s Resurrection in Nos. 13 and 14 (“Today Salvation Has Come,” “Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb”). But the most lengthy and substantial pieces are the preceding ones, Nos. 11 and 12, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord” and “The Great Doxology.” Here, Rachmaninoff contrasts episodes of dramatic rejoicing with quiet mystical passages, using the oft-repeated familiar refrain “pomiluy nas” (Have mercy on us) to cathartic emotional effect in No. 12. Throughout the Vigil, Rachmaninoff uses theme-and-variations techniques familiar from Russian folk song, without recourse to any western musical devices such as fugue or canon.

The solemn character of the Vigil suited the wartime mood in Russia, as the futile slaughter at the front continued unabated, and the premiere, in March 1915, was given as a benefit for war victims. “The impression produced by this work,” Rachmaninoff’s sister-in-law recalled, “was so great that by public demand it was done four times in the course of the same spring.” Little more than two years later, the Bolshevik Revolution brought to power a Communist regime that would ban Orthodox music and force Rachmaninoff into permanent exile. For years, the Vigil remained little-known and infrequently performed, a situation that changed only with the collapse of Communism in Russia in 1991.

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays, articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

—Harlow Robinson