Sunday, 16 August 2015

‘Nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets
it free … as concordant melody and sacred song’

In the Parade Tower in Kilkenny Castle during a lecture on ‘The Lost Music of Byzantium’ by Dr Alexander Lingas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

This year marks the centenary of the All-Night Vigil, the a cappella choral composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Op. 37.

This work, better known as in the West as Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, was written and premiered in 1915. It is Rachmaninoff’s finest achievement, and “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

For many people in the West the All-Night Vigil may be their first introduction to the Orthodox and Byzantine liturgical tradition. Although the whole work is often referred to as Vespers, only the first six of its 15 movements set texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers.

It is an impassioned and hauntingly beautiful work, and it represents the pinnacle of the Russian choral repertoire, and Rachmaninoff requested that the fifth movement be sung at his funeral.

Rachmaninoff composed the All-Night Vigil in less than two weeks in January and February 1915. It was a culmination of two decades of interest in Russian sacred music, initiated by Tchaikovsky’s setting of the all-night vigil.

It was first performed in Moscow on 10 March 1915, when Nikolai Danilin conducted the all-male Moscow Synodal Choir at the premiere. It was so successful that it was performed five more times within a month.

To mark this centenary, Cappella Romana is opening its 24th Annual Season with Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, with performances in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, that will include psalms and hymns by Tchaikovsky and others to place Rachmaninoff’s work within its larger context.

Icons of Sound: Cappella Romana in a virtual Hagia Sophia – Cherubic Hymn in Mode 1, from a performance at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall, 1 February 2013

Cappella Romana is an ensemble celebrated for its recordings of the Byzantine liturgical tradition, dating back to the great church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

Some performances by Cappella Romana feature music from this tradition that has never before been heard by many, sometimes with new or rediscovered works brought to audiences by leading contemporary composers.

Cappella Romana’s Founder and Artistic Director, Dr Alexander Lingas, spoke in Kilkenny Castle yesterday [15 August 2015] about ‘The Lost Music of Byzantium’. Dr Lingas is currently a Lecturer in Music at City University in London and a Fellow of the University of Oxford’s European Humanities Research Centre. He was formerly Assistant Professor of Music History at Arizona State University’s School of Music. He has also been a lecturer and adviser at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge.

His lecture in the Parade Tower in Kilkenny Castle was part of the programme of this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats, this lecture was inspired, in part, by Yeats’ great poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’



In his lecture, Alexander Lingas explored the traditions of Byzantine music dating back to before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453.

At the end of his lecture, Dr Lingas played a recording of the ‘Cherubic Hymn in Mode 1’ by Cappella Romana in a virtual Hagia Sophia at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall on 1 February 2013. This version of the ‘Cherubic Hymn in Mode 1’ was arranged by Manuel Chrysaphes, and is found in a manuscript dated 1458 in the Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos.

He introduced us to a mediaeval musical tradition of the Greek Orthodox and Byzantine world based in Constantinople, the “New Rome,” and its Slavic neighbours. Its languages include Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Slavonic, Romanian, and, today, French and English.

He reminded us of a tradition that is still alive from Beirut to Bucharest, and drew on manuscripts and texts from Mount Athos, Patmos, Mount Sinai, Byzantium, Athens, Alexandria and southern Italy. He told us how at one time there was a total of 525 clergy in Hagia Sophia serving and responding to the Divine Liturgy.

We also heard how this tradition meets the work of contemporary European composers such as Michael Adamis, Ivan Moody, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener, as well as Ioannis Arvanitis, Father Sergei Glagolev, Christos Hatzis, Peter Michaelides, and Tikey Zes.


He quoted Saint John Chrysostom, who wrote: “For nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from the earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn and all the things if this life as concordant melody and sacred song composed in rhythm.”

And the soul was aroused and given wings at yesterday’s lecture.

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