14 April 2017

Listening to Rachmaninov’s
‘Vespers’ on Good Friday

Patrick Comerford

Later this morning, I am taking part in a Good Friday Ecumenical Service in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, along with Father Liam Enright, the Catholic parish priest, the Revd Ruth Watt, the local Methodist minister, and David Breen of the Rathkeale Pre-Social Cohesion Group.

The theme of this one-hour service starting at 12 noon is ‘Waiting Around the Cross,’ and I have selected a recording of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers to play in the background as we read and reflect on the ‘Seven Last Words.’

The advantage of this choice is that as the recording is playing in background people in the church will recognise it immediately as sacred music. But because it is in Church Slavonic, or liturgical Russian, it will enhance their listening without distracting them as they meditate on each of the readings and reflections.

Rachmaninov’s Vespers orAll-Night Vigil is an a cappella choral composition by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), his Op. 37. He composed this work in less than two weeks in January and February 1915, and it had its premiere in Moscow over 100 years ago on 23 March 1915, amid the privations of World War I and when Russia was on the brink of destruction and revolution.

This piece draws on settings of the texts sung in the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil. Many regard this quiet, reflective and deeply moving work not only as Rachmaninov’s finest achievement, but as ‘the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church.’

Although the entire work is generally known as Rachmaninov’s Vespers, only the first six of the 15 movements draw on texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers. The composer had a deep and very personal religious faith, which he expresses beautifully in this choral work. It is separated into two parts: the evening Vespers and the morning Matins, both full of exquisitely rich harmonies.

The All Night Vigil is traditional before great religious feasts in the Orthodox tradition.

Rachmaninov followed the Church tradition of basing 10 of the 15 sections on Russian chants, including some of the ancient Znamenny chants and more recent Greek and Kievian chants, with the remaining five being more free-form. Those five were so similar to the other 10, however, that Rachmaninov even described them as ‘conscious counterfeits.’

On the scaffold of these chants Rachmaninov hangs a musical tapestry of Byzantine texture, sobriety, and power. Many of his eight-voiced choral textures remain in a flowing and chant-like homophony. His harmonic language is tonally grounded with frequent pedal points, but also rich modal and chromatic inflections.

Antiphonal textures (Nos. 2, 8, 10) and liturgical refrains (Nos. 3, 9, 11, 12) evoke the incense-choked atmospheres of the Orthodox Church.

The 15 movements are:

1, Come, Let Us Worship
2, Bless The Lord, O My Soul
3, Blessed Be The Man
4, O Gentle Light
5, Now Let Thy Servant Depart (Nunc Dimittis)
6, Rejoice, O Virgin
7, Glory To God in the Highest
8, Praise the Name of the Lord
9, Blessed Art Thou, O Lord
10, Having Beheld Resurrection of the Lord 11, My Soul Magnifies the Lord (Magnificat)
12, Glory to God in the Highest
13, Troparion: The Day of Salvation
14, Troparion: Christ is Risen from the Grave
15, Thanksgiving to the Mother of God

The fifth movement, the Orthodox Nunc Dimittis (Нынѣ отпущаеши) closes with a slow bass descent to low B flat. It was Rachmaninov’s favourite movement and the music he intended for his own funeral.

Rachmaninov died on 28 March 1943, four days before his 70th birthday, and a choir sang his All Night Vigil at his funeral.

However, the first recording of the Vespers was made only in 1965 – half a century after the first performance.

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