Rachmaninoff “Vespers”

PROGRAM

January 14, 2017, 8pm | Plymouth Church, Seattle

January 15, 2017, 4:30pm | Capitol Rotunda, Olympia

All-Night Vigil, opus 37 (1915)

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
  1. Priiditye, poklonimsya [Come, let us worship]
  2. Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda [Bless the Lord, O my soul]
  3. Blazehn muzh [Blessed is the man]
  4. Svete tihiy [Gladsome light]
  5. Nine otpushchayeshi [Lord, now lettest thou]
  6. Bogoroditse Devo [Rejoice, O virgin]
  7. Shestopsalmiye [The Six Psalms]
  8. Hvalite imia Ghospodne [Praise the name of the Lord]
  9. Blagosloven yesi, Ghospodi [Blessed art thou, O Lord]
  10. Voskreseniya Hristovo videvshe [Having beheld the resurrection]
  11. Velichit dusha moya Ghospoda [My soul magnifies the Lord]
  12. Slavosloviye velikoye [The Great Doxology]
  13. Tropar: “Dnes spaseniye” [Troparion: “Today salvation”]
  14. Tropar: “Voskres iz groba” [Troparion: “Thou didst rise”]
  15. Vzbrannoy voyevode [To thee, the victorious leader]

Prelude: Russian Sacred Music

Other than Rachmaninoff’s Vigil and a smattering of miniatures by composers of the previous generation, Russian music occupies a neglected niche in the repertoire of modern American choirs. More’s the pity, for the Russian choral tradition is rich and quite distinctive from its Western cousins. Just as Western Europe developed different varieties of medieval chant, such as Gregorian in Rome and Sarum in England, Russia had its distinctive type, called znamenny chant, with roots stretching to ancient Byzantium. When thirteenth-century Tatars conquered Kiev, hitherto the center of Russian culture, the churches of Novgorod and Moscow preserved znamenny chant, but only barely.

The Renaissance brought to Western European music new imaginative vibrancy, with sacred polyphony and secular madrigals, but these innovations missed Russia entirely. Not until Vasily Titov (c.1650–c.1715) did Russia give rise to a native-born composer of important stature. The eighteenth century brought greater influences from the West, as the tsars in St. Petersburg hired leading Italian musicians to direct their resident orchestras and singers. New heights arose with the sacred, unaccompanied “choral concertos” of Dmitri Bortniansky (1751–1825), written for the Imperial Court Chapel. Bortniansky’s music often sounds like a juxtaposition of Italian lyricism and Haydnesque buoyancy. The works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Cherubini, and other Western masters came to be imitated and performed throughout Russia. The Court Chapel even presented the world premiere of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in 1824.

The mid-nineteenth century brought a decline in choral writing as Russian composers—not unlike their Western contemporaries—devoted themselves more to opera and orchestral music. Alexei Lvov (1799–1870) used his post as director of the Imperial Court Chapel to exert authoritarian censorship over liturgical music in the Russian church. He enforced an extremely conservative musical language: pared-down four-part harmonizations of simple, repetitive chant. Then came the Divine Liturgy by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), composed in 1878. It controversially flouted the church’s monopoly on sacred music, having been crafted for concerts rather than worship services. However, even this crucial work was largely tied to Lvov’s compositional style, limiting its appeal today.

In the 1880s, two prominent ensembles dominated Russian choral music. In the northern city of St. Petersburg, Alexander Arkhangelsky (1846–1924) founded the first professional chorus in Russia tied neither to church, nor court, nor opera house. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Synodal Choir sang services and concerts at the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin. These two choirs raised Russian choral music to a new level of excellence, with emphases on tuning, balance, and artistic subtlety. A new clutch of composers arose who devoted their energies to writing sophisticated, nuanced, carefully crafted music with a distinctively Russian sound. They wholly embraced znamenny chant as raw material for new works, just as their orchestrally-minded compatriots had done with Russian folksong. Most prominent among these composers were Alexander Kastalsky (1856–1926), Alexander Grechaninov (1864–1956), Viktor Kalinnikov (1870–1927), and Pavel Chesnokov (1877–1944). Many choral composers of the era had trained as singers in, or served on the faculty of, the Synodal Choir under its expert conductor, Vasily Sergeyevich Orlov (1856–1907).

Rachmaninoff Before the Vigil

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born into an aristocratic family at their estate near Novgorod, a medieval city prominent in Russian culture and history—born at an estate, yes, but the only land left to a formerly wealthy family. (Any number of Chekhov plays aptly describes their declining fortunes.) When Sergei was but nine years old, the family sold their last land holdings and moved 120 miles north, to a dingy apartment in the metropolis of St. Petersburg. His parents separated, and he lived with his mother, siblings, and maternal grandmother. As a child, Sergei often took his beloved grandmother to the various churches and cathedrals. This formative musical experience left a lasting mark on his future compositional output: he often imitated the sound of church bells in his orchestral and piano writing, and throughout his life he embraced the largely stepwise melodic motion, and frequent returns to a home pitch, found in znamenny chant. While but a boy Rachmaninoff was witnessing the great rebirth of Russian choral music. After these jaunts through the city with his grandmother, he often returned home to play the chants on the piano. Music was clearly his destiny.

In 1885, at the encouragement of his cousin, the renowned pianist Alexander Siloti, Rachmaninoff transferred from the music conservatory in St. Petersburg to its rival in Moscow. He seemed physically destined to play piano: his bearing was tall and aristocratic, and his hands were extremely large (for a bit of musical humor, search YouTube for “Rachmaninoff had big hands”). But by temperament he was more shy and reserved, and found himself drawn to composition. Having taken classes from Stepan Smolensky (1848–1909), the director of the Synodal Choir, Rachmaninoff dabbled in unaccompanied sacred choral music along the lines of Bortniansky. He himself even taught a class for prospective choral trainers, for a little income. But the true hints of greater accomplishments can be found in his First Piano Concerto (1891) and graduation opera, Aleko (1892). These early efforts were encouraged by Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, and Arensky, the leading composers in Moscow. Soon the Prelude in C-sharp minor (1892) came to be played throughout Europe, already positioning Rachmaninoff as heir apparent to the great Russian Romantic tradition. This came to an abrupt end when Alexander Glazunov—who is believed to have been drunk—conducted the disastrous first performance of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in 1897.

The creative crisis that followed has been blown a bit out of proportion by popular writers. It is true that Rachmaninoff destroyed the symphony in anger and frustration. But Rachmaninoff did not, in fact, stop composing entirely. Though he did feel his compositional skills to be stymied, he merely shifted his emphasis to conducting, working as an assistant at the Bolshoi Theater. He also began the career that would later become his bread and butter, that of a touring pianist. Upon deciding to write a new piano concerto, in part to bolster his developing pianistic career, severe depression took hold. Here the writers have it correct: it was only through the twice-weekly intervention of a psychologist, whose famous hypnotic suggestion—“You will start writing, and the work will be excellent”—provided the young composer the mental means whereby to achieve the Second Piano Concerto (1900), which remains his most famous large-scale work. A masterful Cello Sonata (1901) soon followed, plus two more one-act operas (The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, both 1905). Rachmaninoff had suddenly found his mature voice, and discovered that audiences loved it.

Sadly, revolutionary fervor in Russia began to sour against aristocrats like Rachmaninoff, so he and his new family settled for a time in Dresden, Germany. Here followed the melodious Second Symphony (1907), First Piano Sonata (1907), Third Piano Concerto (1909), and brooding tone-poem The Isle of the Dead (1909). He took his first tour to America, where he was invited to become the regular conductor of the Boston Symphony, but declined. Returning to Russia, he focused again on piano works: the Preludes, op.32 (1910), Études-tableaux, op.33 (1911), and Second Piano Sonata (1913). One wonders if this sudden flurry of piano works was an attempt to divert attention from the ubiquitous C-sharp-minor Prelude, which audiences and concert promoters alike demanded he play. The inspired decade from 1902 also brought some forty songs, including Lilacs (1902) and the wordless Vocalise (1912).

Two large-scale choral works also occupied this period. The unaccompanied Divine Liturgy, op.31 (1910), followed and developed the tradition established by Tchaikovsky twenty years earlier. Thanks largely to the development of Russian choirs, Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy is more harmonically elaborate than his mentor’s, but this very attribute caused trouble with the country’s strict religious authorities. (This was not the first such instance in the composer’s life: because he was not a frequent church-goer, his marriage in 1903 had to take place in a barracks chapel rather than a grand church.) Soon there followed a choral symphony, The Bells (1913), setting a rather free Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe. This Rachmaninoff came to respect as his greatest work, and not without reason. These two works, at the flowering of his maturity, evoke in different ways the church bells and religious liturgies he so loved as a small child. And in these two works, one liturgical and the other poetic, Rachmaninoff set the stage for his next choral masterpiece.

The 1913–14 concert season was extremely demanding for Rachmaninoff, now one of the leading pianists and conductors in Russia, with 44 concerts including eight in England. He passed the following spring and summer as usual at the family estate, called Ivanovka, near the city of Tambov, three hundred miles southeast of Moscow. The composer himself managed the estate, per the old feudal style. (Modern watchers of Downton Abbey would recognize some of the supervisory tasks Rachmaninoff undertook.) The First World War broke out in August. His recitals and concerto appearances continued unabated that fall, but now proceeds often went to the war effort. He composed but fitfully that year—merely a few sketches to be taken up many years later.

 

About Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil

Regarding his activities of January and February 1915, Rachmaninoff later said: “I composed my Vesper Mass [i.e., All-Night Vigil] very quickly; it was completed in less than two weeks. The impulse to compose it came to me after hearing a performance of my Liturgy, which I did not like at all.” It is possible that the performance he mentioned was the one that he himself had conducted the preceding February. In any case, the two-week period was probably merely the concluding phase of composition: Rachmaninoff, like many of the greats, tended to compose in his head over weeks or months before putting his thoughts to paper.

Several features of the work were demanded by religious tradition and authorities. But each of these restrictions Rachmaninoff turned into great strengths. For example, the Orthodox church (still today) bans instruments in worship, hence the All-Night Vigil is set for unaccompanied chorus, as was the Liturgy before it. But here he made a considerable advance on the earlier work. He learned, from Kastalsky and other choral specialists, the usefulness of what can be termed choral orchestration. To demonstrate the many ways in which Rachmaninoff excelled at this skill, I resort to a bulleted list.

  • The work is scored for a standard four-part chorus, but almost never does the ensemble behave in four simple voices. Each part, at different points in the score, splits into two and even three lines.
  • Often a melodic line is doubled at the octave—as is often found in orchestral writing—which results in less complex counterpoint but a thicker texture.
  • At other times, he requires the voices to combine. On one occasion, the low altos, tenors, and baritones sing in exact unison, creating a wholly new timbre.
  • The basses, tenors, and even (shock of shocks!) altos get the melody much more frequently than the sopranos. (Perhaps his especial fondness of the alto voice stems from his older sister, who had been accepted into the company of the Bolshoi opera but died before she could take up the post.)
  • The sopranos’ high range is reserved for particular moments, and never goes higher than an A. On the other hand, the basses are often in their basement, and in three movements descend into the sub-basement domain of a bottom B-flat. (More on that later.)
  • Three movements include incidental moments for a tenor soloist, and one features an alto soloist, though Rachmaninoff also allows choral sections to sing those parts.
  • At times certain sections of the chorus are directed to hum rather than sing.

All of these elements combine to create a fluid, constantly changing sonority that helps to maintain the listener’s interest. More crucially, these various means are always used to the artistic ends of reinforcing the text and the expressivity of the music. When Rachmaninoff wants us to hear a particular melodic line or line of text, he writes the music such that it is impossible not to hear it. When a composer can combine such craft with great emotional expressivity, he has truly become a master of the medium.

Tradition also restricted Rachmaninoff by requiring that certain movements include ancient chants as melodic material. Kastalsky helped Rachmaninoff to select which chants would fit best. Of the nine chants used, most are znamenny. Kastalsky, in fact, had been a major figure in resurrecting znamenny chants from the neglect they had suffered since being pushed aside in the seventeenth century in favor of two other varieties of chant that Rachmaninoff also uses. Movements 2 and 15 use so-called Greek chants, which have nothing to do with Greece but involve some simple melismas (melodic turns involving more than one note per syllable). Kievan chant, heard in movements 4 and 5, recalls Ukrainian folksong by alternating recitation with choral refrains. But knowledge of these chants is not a requirement, for Rachmaninoff treats them as he would any other melody. As Kastalsky wrote in an article previewing the premiere: “One should hear what has become of the simple, straightforward melodies in the hands of a major artist!”

Even more remarkable are Rachmaninoff’s melodies in the movements that do not require chant. He called these “conscious counterfeits,” also translatable as “deliberate falsifications.” Those tunes move largely stepwise (without big leaps) and have syncopated rhythm (accenting off-beats to reflect the text)—in other words, they are very much like chant. A listener thus does not need to know which melodies are chant and which aren’t, for Rachmaninoff has crafted his work to be without seams. (Comparison can be made to Duruflé’s use of Gregorian chant in his Requiem.) This was, after all, not Rachmaninoff’s first exposure to the chants he loved in his youth: from his First Symphony to the Symphonic Dances, his very last composition, chant is a frequent background presence.

The All-Night Vigil service takes place the evening before a major feast, such as Easter. Yet even Rachmaninoff called this his “Vesper Mass,” and the service is only truly “all night” in monasteries. Churches instead conflate the evening Vespers service with the early-morning Matins service into one Vigil. In worship, some of the texts are variable from one Vigil to another, but Rachmaninoff set only those texts which do not change. This may imply that he intended it to be performed as part of a worship service, though we have no direct evidence to that. In fact, given that complete Vigil or Liturgy cycles were only rarely performed liturgically, but more often in concerts, we can safely assume that Rachmaninoff would have expected his music to appear in concert, with liturgical use as a mere remote possibility. During his lifetime only separate chunks were ever performed liturgically. Many modern concerts respectably incorporate selections of chant to mimic a Vigil service. However, just as today Mozart Masses are performed without liturgical considerations, sometimes one hears merely that which Rachmaninoff has provided, without adornment.

What You Will Hear

The Vigil service begins as the priest enters simply, swinging his thurible of incense, through a curtained door. He pronounces a brief blessing, to which the choir responds with “Amen”—here begins Rachmaninoff’s music. Four times the priest and choir summon the people to worship, expanding the call slightly each time. This is the most homophonic movement in Rachmaninoff’s Vigil, meaning that all the voices sing the same words to roughly the same rhythm at the same time. It begins in six parts—three parts in close harmony, doubled at the octave—but expands to eight parts and more open harmony as each proclamation continues. The tune is not from chant, but such is Rachmaninoff’s skill and familiarity with the idiom that the casual listener would never know.

The low altos (or alto soloist) take the chant melody in the second movement, accompanied by the lowest men’s voices. The basses’ harmonization changes slightly from time to time. Rachmaninoff juxtaposes that “low” sonority with the “high” sonority of top tenors plus altos and sopranos. He begins to stretch ever so slowly the traditional norms of Orthodox choral singing. This would be sung while the priest swings his thurible, blessing the congregation. The text blesses or praises God for creating all things. To Rachmaninoff, this is a contemplative, calm moment: blessing God is an internal act.

In the third movement, “Blessed is the man,” Rachmaninoff again explores textural possibilities. The middle voices sing the psalm text while the full ensemble responds with “Alleluia” as a refrain. After a few verbatim repetitions, the “Alleluias” move a step higher each time, eventually beginning a sixth higher than at the start. At the end of the movement, Rachmaninoff returns to the original pitch by three trifold statements of “Alleluia.”

“Gladsome light” is based on a Kievan chant from the third century. During the traditional Orthodox rite this chant is sung while all the lamps and candles are lit. Just as the church gets brighter bit by bit, Rachmaninoff slowly adds voices to the texture: first tenors alone, eventually joined by the women, and finally by the basses. The tenor soloist takes the role of the priest, intoning praise to God.

In the fifth movement the tenor gets a more extended role, and indeed it is a specific character, that of Simeon in the New Testament. He was the old man who met the infant Jesus in the temple and declared, as had been prophesied that he would, that this child was the savior. In this prayer, known in the West as the “Nunc dimittis,” Simeon declares his readiness for death. Surrounding the soloist’s Kievan chant, the slow, steady pace of the altos and tenors could be interpreted as either a gentle lullaby, the tolling of bells, or the gait of an old man. Liturgically, at this point children enter the church and are laid on the ground, after which the priest raises them up to their parents. The movement closes with the basses descending to an extraordinarily low bottom B-flat. When Rachmaninoff first played this section for Nikolai Danilin (1878–1945), who was to conduct the premiere, the maestro’s response was: “Where on earth are we going to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” But years later the composer attested: “I knew the voices of my countrymen”—and he was right. He had hoped that this movement would be played at his funeral, a wish which was unfortunately not realized.

The following prayer, comparable to the “Ave Maria,” is probably the single most well-known piece of Russian church music. The melody seems to be chant—especially the middle section led by the altos—but in fact it is pure Rachmaninoff. Only briefly does this movement rise above piano (soft), but it is a powerful moment. After a final blessing and the extinguishing of light, the monastic Vespers service ends here.

All his life, Rachmaninoff was interested in the sound of bells. In the seventh movement, the sopranos and tenors mimic bells that greet worshippers to Matins service. The tune, found largely in the altos, is an old znamenny chant. Demonstrating the composer’s sense of choral orchestration, at one point the chant is assigned to all the altos, one-half the tenors, and one-third of the sopranos. After a great pealing of bells of different sizes, the chorus sings delicately and homophonically, almost in the style of a Protestant hymn.

Rachmaninoff brings a more overtly jubilant mood to the eighth movement. Symbolically in honor of Christ’s resurrection, candles and lamps are lit for Matins. Altos and basses intone the znamenny chant in octaves while sopranos and tenors, much divided, add fanfares and filigree.

Just as the resurrection is the heart of Christian theology, the ninth movement is the heart of Rachmaninoff’s Vigil. Set to znamenny chant, the text is the biblical narrative of the women who arrive at Jesus’ tomb to anoint the body, but instead are greeted by an angel who tells them of the resurrection. Rachmaninoff pays close attention to syllabic stress and spoken pacing. Each episode in the story is interrupted by a devotional prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your ways.” These different sections are linked with a single held note, often hummed. The closing third of this movement (“Glory to God the Father…”) evidently had special meaning to Rachmaninoff, for he incorporated this music into his final composition, the Symphonic Dances (1940); at the appropriate juncture, he even wrote “Alleluia” into that score’s manuscript.

There is in Matins a series of texts that change for different feast days: a litany, versicles, and a reading from the Gospels recounting a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Then follows the “Veneration of the Cross,” when the New Testament is moved to the midst of the worshippers, and is symbolically hailed as akin to the face of Christ. This forms Rachmaninoff’s tenth movement, wherein women and men trade monolithic statements of an original chant-like tune, interspersed with moments when they sing together.

Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Magnificat—the prayer of Mary reflecting on the honor God has given her by appointing her to bear the baby Jesus—is unique among all the dozens I have encountered by assigning the melody not to womanly voices, neither to the chorus as a whole, but to the basses. Each line of Mary’s text is separated by an acclamation in the upper voices (everyone except the basses): “More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious than the seraphim….” These interruptions are part of the Orthodox rite for Easter. Mary’s lines differ subtly to evoke the specific mood of the text, which to Rachmaninoff is often different than tradition would imply.

The twelfth movement, called “The Great Doxology,” compares to the Gloria in the Catholic Mass, with some text added from the Te Deum and Psalm 90 (“Lord, you have been our dwelling place”). Here is a tour de force of choral orchestration. Each section of voices, at some point, takes the fourth-century znamenny chant. At the start, the altos sing the tune while tenors sustain chords underneath, as would orchestral woodwinds. Bells peal at the mention of Jesus Christ (“You alone are the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, Amen.”). In the Orthodox service, the priest would intone the words “in your light we shall see light” at the moment of sunrise; Rachmaninoff assigns this moment as the preparation for one of the most sustained climaxes of the Vigil, when the sopranos twice reach to A-flat. The close is likewise strong, but, as with every section of this Vigil, the actual final chord is soft.

Next follow two troparia based on znamenny chants. A troparion is an ancient poetic form found in Orthodox services. These two are short, meditative hymns to the resurrection, as Rachmaninoff winds down the Vigil from the expansive pronouncements that came before. The penultimate section includes a chant that Rimsky-Korsakov had used in his then popular Russian Easter Festival Overture (1888), and that Rachmaninoff himself had used in his early Fantaisie-Tableaux, opus 5 (1893), for two pianos.

At this point the monastic service of Matins would conclude, but Rachmaninoff’s Vigil is not over yet. In monasteries, the monks would chant another short service called First Hour, after which they sing this hymn from the feast day of the Annunciation, when Mary was informed that her unborn child would be the savior. The close of Rachmaninoff’s Vigil is in fact the shortest of all fifteen movements, but it contains the longest period of unbridled joy. At times the composer adopts the simple imitative techniques that Bortniansky used in his choral concertos. Despite the grand hymn of praise and victory, Rachmaninoff manages to end his Vigil gently. To him, every act of devotion is an internal one.

Postlude: Revolution and Decline

Soon after completing the Vigil, Rachmaninoff played it privately on the piano to his two closest chorally inclined colleagues, Kastalsky and Danilin. (The latter had been a fellow student with Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Philharmonic School, and had premiered the Liturgy in 1911.) This was the last piece that Rachmaninoff took to his old composition teacher Sergei Taneyev, who was very impressed and who died months later. One advisor who died too early to hear the work was Smolensky, who had done so much to resurrect the old znamenny chants to current choral use, and to whose memory Rachmaninoff dedicated the Vigil.

The first performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil took place a mere two months after its completion, on March 10, 1915, sung by the Moscow Synodal Choir conducted by Danilin at the Great Hall of the Nobility in Moscow. Sponsored by Kastalsky, five more performances took place in a few weeks, all of them extremely well attended. Rachmaninoff later averred that every performance under Danilin revealed the work differently, but that each interpretation was equally attractive. The Vigil was well received by its audiences, but the religious authorities were displeased with the liberties Rachmaninoff took with the traditional chants. Perhaps the reason they allowed the performances was that the income went to the war effort, for the First World War was by then raging.

The War shattered Rachmaninoff’s life. From its first months, with the establishment of the Eastern Front, Russia’s military fought a more brutal battle even than the horrors to the west. As the war developed, Russia’s economy and population suffered so greatly that self-appointed government councils (called “soviets”) rose up in revolution in many cities. The tsar and other royalty were deposed and murdered. Aristocratic landowners like Rachmaninoff were no longer revered: their estates were looted, vandalized, and often destroyed. (Ivanovka was later restored and is now a museum.) Amid the chaos, Rachmaninoff was able to secure an exit visa for him and his family, ostensibly for a concert engagement in Sweden. They escaped via Finland—using the same border crossing that the exiled Lenin had used to triumphantly enter Russia months earlier—and wandered Europe until finally settling in New York City. There he entirely ceased composing, instead devoting his energies to concertizing in order to support his family. They developed a household along pre-revolutionary traditions: Russian was spoken, Russian customs were embraced, the servants were Russian, and even most of his guests were fellow exiled Russians. He began recording and became one of the world’s best-paid musicians. He built a posh villa on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Eventually he began composing again, including the Fourth Piano Concerto (1927), the Corelli Variations (1931) for solo piano, the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) for piano and orchestra, the Third Symphony (1936), and perhaps his greatest orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances (1940). But these works continued the same Late Romantic style that he had always employed, and none were embraced wholly. In 1939 he said that he felt “like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.” During the Second World War he again fled Europe, settling near Los Angeles, where he died at home, just miles from the homes of two other eminent European exiles, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

And what of the tradition that Rachmaninoff had perfected in his All-Night Vigil? The new Communist regime dismantled the country’s ancient religious infrastructure. In 1918, the Synodal Choir was dissolved, its school re-christened as the People’s Choral Academy. Most composers and conductors, including Danilin and Chesnokov, found work at the Bolshoi Theater, the Moscow Conservatory, or other secular institutions. But the most prominent Russian composers, such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, rarely wrote choral music that wasn’t political propaganda. After Stalin’s death in 1953, some of the strictures were relaxed, and in 1957 Rachmaninoff’s Vigil finally received a complete presentation during the Orthodox liturgy in the Soviet Union. Only in recent decades has this music truly gained a foothold in both Russia and the West. The ancient traditions are coming to be researched, understood, and appreciated, with Rachmaninoff’s Vigil leading the charge. Just as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the great final accomplishment of the Classical-Era symphony, and Wagner’s Ring the culmination of German Romantic opera, here we have the apex of Russian choral music, centuries in the making.

Program notes and translations prepared by Dr. Gary D. Cannon, www.cannonesque.com.

  © 2016 Gary D. Cannon. All rights reserved. Further use is prohibited except by agreement.