RACHMANINOV: Vespers, Op. 37
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Vespers, Op. 37
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born into awealthy estate-owner's family near Novgorod. Hisfather squandered the family property, which had to besold in 1880. The family moved to St Petersburg.
Sergey showed musical talent from an early age. Fromthe age of four, his mother taught him the piano. On theadvice of his uncle, the pianist Alexander Ziloti, hemoved to Moscow to study the piano and composition.
At the Conservatory he completed his finalexaminations as a pianist in 1891 and as a composer in1892, and before the turn of the century, his works hadalready found broad popularity. Disappointed with thecool reception given by audiences and critics to his FirstSymphony, 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, whichculminated in the Second and Third Piano Concertos,the opera Francesca da Rimini and the SecondSymphony. He wrote few choral works. His mostsignificant sacred works, the Liturgy of St JohnChrysostom (1910) and the All-Night Vigil (1915) datefrom this second period. Later he wrote no more sacredmusic.
Rachmaninov had been in contact with Orthodoxsacred music since his childhood. The influence ofOrthodox chant is clearly detectable in his music, forinstance in his use of stepwise motion, a characteristicof Orthodox chant, in his themes. On the other hand, hisworks also reflect to a great extent the Impressionismand Symbolism of the turn of the twentieth century. Hismusic fascinates the listener with its richness of melodicinvention, its Slavic intensity and its incisive rhythms.The All-Night Vigil
The Russian term vsjenoshchnoe bdeniye refers to avigil that lasts through the night. This is a historicalpractice that survives to this day, a divine service inseveral parts, which if said in its entirety, as it still is inmonasteries, takes all night.
The corresponding terms agrypnia (Greek) andvigilia (Latin) also refer to staying awake or standingguard or, metaphorically, being vigilant. Inecclesiastical use, the term usually refers to a prayerservice held at night; there are indications from thesecond century onward that the term was particularlyassociated with Easter. Great feasts were preceded by avigil lasting all night, not only at Easter (the 'mother ofall vigils') but at Christmas and Epiphany too. Stayingup all night was also associated with feasts of martyrsand with wakes held for the deceased.
The practice has its model in the New Testament,where Christ himself is described as praying through thenight:\And it came to pass in those days that he went outinto a mountain to pray, and continued all night inprayer to God." (Luke 6:12) There are reports even innon-Christian sources of Christians holding services inthe night and early in the morning because of the fear ofpersecution.
The best-known of these reports is no doubt thatgiven by Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in112. He reported that Christians assembled early in themorning, before sunrise, to praise Christ. There is alsodocumentation dating from the end of the secondcentury onwards of solitary ascetics saying prayers atnight, divided into 'hours'.
The night was a good time for praying because itwas dark: timeless night (intempesta nox). It was easy tosubdue the horrors of the night by praying. Divineservices in monasteries culminated in the all-nightagrypnia, a service that lasted from the first hour of thenight to the first hour of the following day. The monksvalued nightly services for ascetic reasons but alsobecause the night was more conducive to prayer than thedistraction-filled daytime.
Historically, the vigil involves several elements. Inthe monasteries, the chanting of the Psalms wasconsidered of prime importance. By contrast, the 'sungservice' developed in major historically importantcentres. The services involved not only singing andreading but also the Eucharist. Furthermore, theyincluded the agape, or meal of love. It is known thatfrom very early on Christ, the light of the world, wasrepresented in the vigil with a lighted candle or an oillamp; in the liturgical diurnal rhythm, the sunrise wastaken to symbolize Christ.
Ecclesiastical poetry is often in the present tense,highlighting the actuality of the events and theimportance of participation. In the offices of themonasteries, vigils were prescribed for the night beforeSunday; in Byzantine monasteries, agrypnia serviceswere held before various feasts and before Sundays;they involved solemn singing.
According to ecclesiastical practice, the day beginsin the evening. The vigil is divided into the eveningservice (Ninth Hour, Vespers and Compline) and themorning service (Nocturns, Matins and First Hour). Thelitany and the blessing of the host could also beincluded. In major cathedrals outside the monasteries, itbecame the custom to include all this in the servicebefore a Sunday or, in the case of a feast, the nightbefore the feast day.
The Saturday all-night vigil became popular inRussia. It prepared for the liturgy and Eucharist of thefollowing day. The vigil as celebrated in Russiancathedrals in the twentieth century had two forms: theResurrection Vigil and the Festal Vigil. Rachmaninov'ssetting follows the order of the Resurrection Vigil.
The liturgy includes numerous unchanging parts(ordinaries) but also many parts that change from oneSunday to the next (propers). In musical terms, the latteris an older layer governed by rospev melodies and theuse of the eight-tone system. Rachmaninov focused onthe ordinaries, with the exception of the ResurrectionTroparies $-%. It would have been a daunting task toundertake the setting of all the propers, since this wouldhave involved setting all the weekly texts in eightdifferent ways, according to the eight-tone practice.
The content of the vigil is extremely profound. Thenarrative in the evening service begins with the creationof the world, the Fall of Man and the expectation of theSaviour. The morning service on Sunday focuses onChrist's Resurrection.
At the beginning of the service, the officiating priestopens the middle or Royal Door of the iconostasis fromthe altar side and waves a censer of incense over thealtar room. After a solemn opening benediction comes afourfold invitation to fall down before the Almighty 1.
The repetition invokes the four corners of the world, thefour points of the compass. Immediately following this,the choir sings portions of the creation psalm 2. Duringthis, the priest waves the censer around the church,symbolizing the time before the Fall. The Royal Door isthen closed, marking the closing of the door to Paradise.
But there is hope for Man, as the psalm says 3. Thehigh point of the evening service is the evening hymn 4,one of the oldest preserved Christian poems. It ispreceded by a procession with lit candles. It highlightsGod's mercy towards fallen Man; the light representsChrist, the light of the world, which is the theme of thepoem too. In the ancient order of offices, this hymn wasto be sung at sunset in the evening. The Canticle ofSimeon 5 comes directly from the New Testament, asdoes the angel's greeting to the Virgin Mary 6.
The morning service is about Christ's entry into theworld and the Resurrection. The service begins with anangelic hymn 7 preceding the reading of theHexapsalm. A Russian service book comments that theangels sang this hymn before dawn and that it includesthe psalm verse "O Lord, thou shalt open my lips, andmy mouth shall declare thy praise" so that men mightlearn to sing like angels. The angelic hymn is repeatedin the opening of the