Rachmaninoff: The All-Night Vigil


Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873 –1943) was a Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor of the late Romantic period, whose works are among the most popular in the Romantic repertoire.

Born into a musical family, Rachmaninoff took up the piano at age four. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, having already composed several piano and orchestral pieces. In 1897, following the negative critical reaction to his Symphony No. 1, Rachmaninoff entered a four-year depression and composed little until successful therapy allowed him to complete his enthusiastically received Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901. During the next sixteen years, Rachmaninoff conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre, relocated to Dresden, Germany, and toured the United States.

Following the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia; in 1918, they settled in the United States, first in New York City. Because his main source of income was as a pianist and conductor, his time for composition was limited by demanding tour schedules: between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. By 1942, his failing health led to his move to Beverly Hills, California. One month before his death from advanced melanoma, Rachmaninoff was granted American citizenship.

In Rachmaninoff's work, early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and Mussorgsky gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness, and rich orchestral colors. 

The All-Night Vigilwas composed in just two weeks, in early 1915. Like all traditional Russian church music, it is a cappella; instruments are not permitted in Orthodox services. The text is in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church.  Rachmaninoff's work is a culmination of the preceding two decades of interest in Russian sacred music, as initiated by Tchaikovsky's setting of the All-Night Vigil. The similarities between the works, such as the extensive use of traditional chants, demonstrates the extent of Tchaikovsky's influence; however, Rachmaninoff's setting is much more complex in its use of harmony, textual variety, and polyphony.

The title of the work is often mistranslated as simply Vespers. This is both literally and conceptually incorrect as applied to the entire work: only the first six of its fifteen movements set texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers.  The religious service itself combines three canonical hours—Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour—into one work. It is celebrated on the eves of Sundays and of major liturgical feasts.   A full religious service, including the music, does take all night. Rachmaninoff’s setting by itself is nearly seventy-five minutes of unaccompanied singing for chorus and soloists. 

Rachmaninoff set the twelve traditional parts of the Vigil to music and added three movements of his own (Nos. 12, 13, and 14), which, in his words, he created “in a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” He made creative use of traditional church chants, using three styles: znamenny (in Nos. 8, 9, 12, 13, and 14), a more recitational "Greek" style (numbers 2 and 15), and "Kiev" chant — a chant developed in Kiev in the 16th and 17th centuries (Nos. 4 and 5). Rachmaninoff had studied ancient chant under Stepan Smolensky, to whom he dedicated the piece. The All-Night Vigilis written for a four-part choir, complete with basso profundo. However, in many sections there is three-, five-, six-, or eight-part harmony; at one point in the seventh movement, the choir is divided into eleven parts. Movements 4 and 9 each contain a brief tenor solo, while movements 2 and 5 feature lengthy solos respectively for alto and tenor

The Vigil was first performed in March of 1915 in Moscow, as a benefit for war relief. It was performed five more times over the next month to packed audiences and critical acclaim.

Pat icon for FB.jpg

The choir opens with the invitation to prayer, No. 1, “Come, Let Us Worship.” 

No. 2, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” features a pure, melodic chant, alternating between the alto soloist and the chorus. Rachmaninoff uses the device of humming—not a part of the Orthodox musical tradition—to create additional texture and to give continuity to the sound.

No. 3, “Blessed Is the Man,” presents Psalm verses interspersed with triple “alleluias,” which increase in fullness and range as the movement progresses. 

No. 4, “Gladsome Light,” is an ancient hymn that “originally accompanied the entrance of the clergy into the church and the lighting of the evening lamp at sunset.” The tenors open with a serene chant, which is then interwoven first with the female voices, then with the basses, evoking the fading sun and the evening light. The final measures, with the soprano notes shimmering above the descending lines of the other three voices, suggest an eternal light shining throughout the night.

The text of No. 5, “Now Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart,” is taken from the story of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke. Simeon had been promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When the newborn Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon realized who he was. He blessed God, saying, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for my eyes have seen thy salvation.” Rachmaninoff said of this movement: “My favorite number in the work. . .is the fifth canticle. . . . I should like this sung at my funeral.” This movement has gained notoriety for its ending in which the low basses must negotiate a descending scale that ends with a low B-flat (the third B-flat below middle C). When Rachmaninoff initially played this passage through to Nikolai Danilin, the choral conductor, in preparation for the first performance, he recalled that “Danilin shook his head, saying, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen. . . .” 

 No. 6, “Rejoice, O Virgin,” is often performed as a separate piece and ranks among Rachmaninoff’s most popular compositions. 

No. 7, “Glory to God in the Highest,” is notable for the “onomatapoeic sound of bells, heard in the three-part chords of the soprano and tenor and later in the great rocking back and forth of the entire choir. . .culminating with a massive, resounding chord in which all the overtones are layered. In a liturgical context, bells would be rung at this point of the service.”

No. 8, “Praise the Name of the Lord,” features “two musical layers. . .the muscular znamenny chant sung by the altos and basses, while above it, the sopranos and tenors hover and swirl like choirs of cherubim and seraphim.” 

No. 9, “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord,” dramatically relates the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and his triumphant resurrection. The humming evokes a sense of mystery and wonder. 

No. 10, “Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ,” alternates between the male voices and female voices, responding to each other in triumph and awe at the mystery of the resurrection.

No. 11, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” is Mary’s paean to God upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus. 

No. 12, “The Great Doxology,” is the pinnacle of the Vigil. The chant begins in the altos until finally the voices come together in the powerful prayer, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”

No. 13, “Today Salvation Has Come to the World,” and No. 14, “Thou Didst Rise From the Tomb,” return to the more meditative, traditional znamenny chant melodies, expressing a reverent gratitude for Divine mercy.  

In No. 15, “To Thee, Victorious Leader” the Vigil ends with the triumphant and joyful hymn of thanks and praise to Mary, the “Theotokos” or Mother of God.


Thanks to Wikipedia and the San Francisco Choral Society for program note source material.

- Patricia Jennerjohn