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8.555908 - RACHMANINOV, S.: Vespers, Op. 37
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Vespers, Op. 37

 

Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born into a wealthy estate-owner's family near Novgorod. His father squandered the family property, which had to be sold in 1880. The family moved to St Petersburg. Sergey showed musical talent from an early age. From the age of four, his mother taught him the piano. On the advice of his uncle, the pianist Alexander Ziloti, he moved to Moscow to study the piano and composition. At the Conservatory he completed his final examinations as a pianist in 1891 and as a composer in 1892, and before the turn of the century, his works had already found broad popularity. Disappointed with the cool reception given by audiences and critics to his First Symphony, he focused on a career as a pianist, performing actively in Russia and, from 1899 onwards, in Western Europe.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Rachmaninov entered a new creative period, which culminated in the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the opera Francesca da Rimini and the Second Symphony. He wrote few choral works. His most significant sacred works, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1910) and the All-Night Vigil (1915) date from this second period. Later he wrote no more sacred music.

Rachmaninov had been in contact with Orthodox sacred music since his childhood. The influence of Orthodox chant is clearly detectable in his music, for instance in his use of stepwise motion, a characteristic of Orthodox chant, in his themes. On the other hand, his works also reflect to a great extent the Impressionism and Symbolism of the turn of the twentieth century. His music fascinates the listener with its richness of melodic invention, its Slavic intensity and its incisive rhythms.

The All-Night Vigil

The Russian term vsjenoshchnoe bdeniye refers to a vigil that lasts through the night. This is a historical practice that survives to this day, a divine service in several parts, which if said in its entirety, as it still is in monasteries, takes all night.

The corresponding terms agrypnia (Greek) and vigilia (Latin) also refer to staying awake or standing guard or, metaphorically, being vigilant. In ecclesiastical use, the term usually refers to a prayer service held at night; there are indications from the second century onward that the term was particularly associated with Easter. Great feasts were preceded by a vigil lasting all night, not only at Easter (the 'mother of all vigils') but at Christmas and Epiphany too. Staying up all night was also associated with feasts of martyrs and with wakes held for the deceased.

The practice has its model in the New Testament, where Christ himself is described as praying through the night:

"And it came to pass in those days that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God." (Luke 6:12) There are reports even in non-Christian sources of Christians holding services in the night and early in the morning because of the fear of persecution.

The best-known of these reports is no doubt that given by Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 112. He reported that Christians assembled early in the morning, before sunrise, to praise Christ. There is also documentation dating from the end of the second century onwards of solitary ascetics saying prayers at night, divided into 'hours'.

The night was a good time for praying because it was dark: timeless night ( intempesta nox ). It was easy to subdue the horrors of the night by praying. Divine services in monasteries culminated in the all-night agrypnia, a service that lasted from the first hour of the night to the first hour of the following day. The monks valued nightly services for ascetic reasons but also because the night was more conducive to prayer than the distraction-filled daytime.

Historically, the vigil involves several elements. In the monasteries, the chanting of the Psalms was considered of prime importance. By contrast, the 'sung service' developed in major historically important centres. The services involved not only singing and reading but also the Eucharist. Furthermore, they included the agape, or meal of love. It is known that from very early on Christ, the light of the world, was represented in the vigil with a lighted candle or an oil lamp; in the liturgical diurnal rhythm, the sunrise was taken to symbolize Christ.

Ecclesiastical poetry is often in the present tense, highlighting the actuality of the events and the importance of participation. In the offices of the monasteries, vigils were prescribed for the night before Sunday; in Byzantine monasteries, agrypnia services were held before various feasts and before Sundays; they involved solemn singing.

According to ecclesiastical practice, the day begins in the evening. The vigil is divided into the evening service (Ninth Hour, Vespers and Compline) and the morning service (Nocturns, Matins and First Hour). The litany and the blessing of the host could also be included. In major cathedrals outside the monasteries, it became the custom to include all this in the service before a Sunday or, in the case of a feast, the night before the feast day.

The Saturday all-night vigil became popular in Russia. It prepared for the liturgy and Eucharist of the following day. The vigil as celebrated in Russian cathedrals in the twentieth century had two forms: the Resurrection Vigil and the Festal Vigil. Rachmaninov's setting follows the order of the Resurrection Vigil.

The liturgy includes numerous unchanging parts (ordinaries) but also many parts that change from one Sunday to the next (propers). In musical terms, the latter is an older layer governed by rospev melodies and the use of the eight-tone system. Rachmaninov focused on the ordinaries, with the exception of the Resurrection Troparies [Tracks 14-15]. It would have been a daunting task to undertake the setting of all the propers, since this would have involved setting all the weekly texts in eight different ways, according to the eight-tone practice.

The content of the vigil is extremely profound. The narrative in the evening service begins with the creation of the world, the Fall of Man and the expectation of the Saviour. The morning service on Sunday focuses on Christ's Resurrection.

At the beginning of the service, the officiating priest opens the middle or Royal Door of the iconostasis from the altar side and waves a censer of incense over the altar room. After a solemn opening benediction comes a fourfold invitation to fall down before the Almighty [1]. The repetition invokes the four corners of the world, the four points of the compass. Immediately following this, the choir sings portions of the creation psalm [2]. During this, the priest waves the censer around the church, symbolizing the time before the Fall. The Royal Door is then closed, marking the closing of the door to Paradise.

But there is hope for Man, as the psalm says [3]. The high point of the evening service is the evening hymn [4], one of the oldest preserved Christian poems. It is preceded by a procession with lit candles. It highlights God's mercy towards fallen Man; the light represents Christ, the light of the world, which is the theme of the poem too. In the ancient order of offices, this hymn was to be sung at sunset in the evening. The Canticle of Simeon [5] comes directly from the New Testament, as does the angel's greeting to the Virgin Mary [6].

The morning service is about Christ's entry into the world and the Resurrection. The service begins with an angelic hymn [7] preceding the reading of the Hexapsalm. A Russian service book comments that the angels sang this hymn before dawn and that it includes the psalm verse "O Lord, thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare thy praise" so that men might learn to sing like angels. The angelic hymn is repeated in the opening of the Great Doxology [12] towards the end of the morning service.

During the singing of the Polyeleopsalm [8] ( polyeleo translates as 'much mercy', literally 'much oil', i.e. light), the priest carries the Gospel book in procession through the Royal Door to the lectern in the middle of the church. A lit candle precedes the book. This represents the resurrection of the Saviour and His showing Himself to His disciples.

The Troparies of the Resurrection [9] associated with the psalm verse Ps. 119:12 feature the joy of the Resurrection: the women bringing ointments to the sepulchre are told by an angel that Christ has risen from the dead. The Hymn of the Resurrection [10] "Having seen the Resurrection" is sung after the reading of the gospel of the Resurrection, and after this the members of the congregation are invited to kiss the Gospel book. The Hymn of Thanksgiving to the Mother of God [11] is preceded by an invitation by the officiating priest: "The Mother of God and the Mother of Light, let us magnify in hymns!"

The Great Doxology [12] is preceded by the sentence: "Glory to thee who hast shown us the light!" In the order of the all-night vigil, this hymn was timed to coincide with sunrise. The hymn comes from an ancient Eastern liturgical tradition. Some of its text comes from the psalms. The two differing Troparia of the Resurrection [13]-[14] are used in alternate weeks in vigils preceding Sunday; both involve the Resurrection.

The Kontakion for the Virgin Mary [15] is usually placed at the end of the First Hour in the all-night vigil. The text is associated with the history of Constantinople and the city being miraculously preserved from enemy attacks. In the text, "thy servants" was originally "thy city".

Hilkka Seppälä
Professor of Orthodox Church Music at the University of Joensuu

English translation: TEC /Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Nicholas Mayow


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