All-Night Vigil (Vespers)
Presented by Austin Civic Chorus
October 20-21, 2012
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, or Vespers as the work is commonly called, was composed during a two-week period in January and February 1915. The preceding years had been particularly successful. He was acknowledged throughout Russia, Europe and the United States as an eminent conductor and virtuoso concert pianist; and he had composed and received critical acclaim for many of his most significant compositions, including the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, three piano concertos and two symphonies. During these years, Rachmaninoff wrote his two most important choral compositions – the Liturgiia svyatovo Ioanna Zlatousta (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) in 1910 and Kolokola (The Bells) in 1913.
At the beginning of the Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff fled Russia and moved to Stockholm, then Copenhagen, and finally New York City. In the 1920s, he toured throughout Europe and the United States as a concert pianist. During the 1930s he lived mostly in a villa on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, where he composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphony #3. He returned to the United States in 1939, where he died of cancer on March 28, 1943, just four days before his 70th birthday. He had hoped to be buried either in Switzerland or Russia, but because of travel restrictions created by World War II, he was buried in a cemetery outside New York City.
Rachmaninoff’s complete choral output consists of three sacred a cappella works set to liturgical
Slavonic texts, two secular choral/orchestral compositions, two collections of part songs, two a cappella cantatas, and one Latin motet. Rachmaninoff was especially fond of the All-Night Vigil and The Bells.
The All-Night Vigil, Op.37, is scored for alto and tenor solos and SSAATTBB chorus, a cappella, with occasional further divisions to SSSAAATTTBBB. The alto solo, which is occasionally sung by the entire alto section (though not indicated to be done so by Rachmaninoff), occurs only in Movement 2. This solo was sung by a boy in the premiere performance and in subsequent performances by the Moscow Synodal Choir, but by a woman in performances Rachmaninoff conducted with the Marinsky Opera Chorus. The alto solo will be performed in these two performances by Chorus Austin’s own Marin Trautman. The tenor solos occur in movements 4, 5 and 9 and were performed by an opera singer in the premiere performance. We are delighted to welcome Nicholas Simpson back to Chorus Austin for these performances.
Performances of the All-Night Vigil in Russia for about the first 30 years took place in concert halls. By the middle of the 20th century, however, performances also occurred in churches. Since 1957, the work has been performed regularly on the eve of Rachmaninoff’s birth in the Church of the Joy and All Sorrowful in Moscow. When performed liturgically, the individual movements, like those of the Roman Mass, are separated by monophonic chants, prayers, litanies and other readings.
The All-Night Vigil is the service celebrated before major feasts or on Saturday evenings.
It is sometimes called The Resurrectional Vigil or the Combined Prayer Service, because in liturgical terms it joins portions of Vesper, Matins, and Prime offices.
The 12 customary parts or movements traditionally set to music are:
- Priiditye, poklonimsya (Come, let us worship), Psalm 95:6, Invitatory
- Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Ghospoda (Bless the Lord, O my soul), Psalm 104:1–6
- Blazhen muzh (Blessed is the man), verses from Psalms 1, 2, and 3
- Svete tihiy (Gladsome light), medieval vesper hymn
- Nïne otpushchayeshï raba tvoyego, vladïko (Lord, now let your servant depart in peace), Nunc dimittis
- Bogoroditse devo (Rejoice, O Virgin), medieval hymn, Ave Maria
- Slava v vïshnih Bogu (Glory to God in the highest), Luke 2:14 and Psalm 51:15, Gloria
- Hvalite imia Ghospodne (Praise the name of the Lord), verses from Psalms 135 and 136, Laudate Dominum
- Blagosloven yesi, Ghospodi (Blessed are you, O Lord), Resurrection hymn
- Voskreseniye Hristovo videvshe (Having beheld the resurrection of Christ), medieval hymn, Veneration of the Cross
- Velichit dushe moya Ghospoda (My soul magnifies the Lord), Magnificat or Canticle of Mary
- Vzbrannoy voyevode (To you, victorious leader), medieval hymn, Hymn of the Annunciation.
Few composers set all these movements, and many composers have interpolated or added other movements. Tchaikovsky, for instance, who was the first composer to write a unified
All-Night Vigil, set 15 movements, eliminating four of the above movements, and adding seven others. Rachmaninoff’s setting also contains 15 movements, but these differ considerably from those set by Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff set the 12 traditional movements and added:
- Slava v vishnih Bogu (Glory to God in the highest), the Great Doxology
- Dnes spaseniye miru bisi (Today salvation has come to the world), Resurrection hymn
- Voskres iz groban (Thou didst rise from the tomb), Theorokion, Hymn to the Mother of God
The settings by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are similar in that both composers incorporate traditional chants into the new compositional fabric. Tchaikovsky even subtitled his opus “an essay at harmonizing ecclesiastical chants.” Rachmaninoff based nine of his 15 movements on chant, four of them (movements 2, 4, 5, and 15) are the same as those used by Tchaikovsky. In the movements not based on chant, Rachmaninoff composed melodies that are chant-like and that he jokingly referred to as “conscious counterfeits.” In keeping with the character of the original chants, eight of the movements have no meter signature.
Rachmaninoff used three types of liturgical chants – Znamenny (in movements 8, 9, 12, 13, and 14), Greek (in movements 2 and 15), and Kievan (in movements 4 and 5). The chants are consistently set in a direct and clear manner, without elaboration.
Often a complete chant is used throughout a movement. In movement 2, for example, the entire alto solo is drawn from the verses of chant, with the chant’s refrains sung by the first tenors or first sopranos of the chorus as interpolations between each of the alto’s phrases. Use of the complete chant also occurs in Movement 13, where the chant becomes the entire soprano voice part.
In most instances, the structure of the chant dictates the structure of the movement. This is especially evident in Movement 8, with numerous repetitions of verses and refrains. Also, the length of the chant normally governs the length of the movement in which it is set. Consequently, movements 9 and 12, with the lengthiest chants, are the longest movements (only Movement 10, which is not based on chant, is longer). Infrequent compositional treatments include imitation of chant phrases between voice parts, such as seen in Movement 5, and partial usage of chant, such as seen in the first seven measures of the tenor part in Movement 4.
Unique as well is the passing of chant phrases among the soprano, bass and tenor voice parts in Movement 14 and the joining of the first sopranos and first tenors in the final phrase of Movement 15, the ending movement. The composer’s love of bells can be heard in movements 7 and 12, making use of dense choral textures to evoke the sound of many ringing bells, and in fact, in the 7th movement, placing the effect at the exact moment that bells would be rung during the liturgy.
The All-Night Vigil was dedicated to Stepan Smolensky, a friend of Rachmaninoff and the highly
respected director of the Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing. The premiere was on March 10, 1915, in the Great Nobility Hall of the Kremlin. This event was extremely successful, so much so that five previously unscheduled performances were given after the premiere. One critic cited the choir’s “crystal-clear sonority, flawless intonation, and vocal orchestration,” and fellow Russian composer Alexandr Dmitriyevich Kastal’sky wrote, “Rachmaninoff’s new composition is undoubtedly a contribution of great importance to the church’s musical literature. . . . One must hear for oneself how simple, artless chants can be transformed in the hands of a great artist.”
Rachmaninoff commented that “the first performance of the Vigil gave me an hour of the happiest satisfaction,” and “the magnificent Synodal Singers produced any effect I had imagined and even surpassed, at times, the ideal tone-picture I had in mind when composing the work.”
Movement 6, Bogoroditse devo, often performed separately, became the most popular of Rachmaninoff’s choral compositions during the 20th century. Movement 5 was Rachmaninoff’s favorite. While playing it on the piano before the first performance, he commented, “It is my favorite number in the work, which I love as I do my setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells. . . . I should like this sung at my funeral.”
Austin Civic Chorus’s performances are that of a musical masterwork. We decided to not include any of the solo chants that form the remainder of the vigil service. This is, ultimately, a concert, and a sacred concert may well bring across more of the message of Rachmaninoff’s music than a half-concert/half-service would. This means that the music, which was meant to spread out over several hours, is heard in these concerts as a continuous series of pieces for chorus.
The general architecture of the service includes the Vespers ending with the Ave Maria, a Matins section telling the story of the resurrection, leading to the double climax of the Magnificat and Greater Gloria and the ending with three hymns proper to the season. Rachmaninoff’s timeless music creates an atmosphere and world unto itself, a world in which we, as humans sharing the experience of listening, may enter to be moved, transformed or simply stilled as we pause to reflect during a time in which stillness is often overlooked.
Whatever your reason for being here, and whatever your reaction to the music, we appreciate your being a part of the Chorus Austin family and look forward to sharing the journey with you.
with appreciation to Dennis Shrock