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The Spiritual Side of Sergei Rachmaninoff Revealed in His Choral Masterpiece, "All-Night Vigil"

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1899

As a boy, Sergei Rachmaninoff often visited his grandmother’s house in the country, where he was mesmerized by the sound of church bells. And although he claimed he was not a religious man, the pianist and composer was influenced by that memory—the music and the bells of the Russian Orthodox Church gave him inspiration for one of his greatest works, his “All-Night Vigil” for à capella choir.

Beginning Friday, November 6, 2020, the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia sings Rachmaninoff’s choral masterpiece in its entirety, on three consecutive Fridays, on WRTI’s Friday Choral Connection. Tune in on November 6th, 13th, and 20th at 1:30 PM to hear all three parts, and experience a work that reveals the full gamut of spirituality—from meditative, reverent, and prayerful, to exultant, ecstatic, and joyful.

In the Russian Orthodox church, the all-night vigil is an actual part of the Russian (or Eastern) Orthodox liturgy. It traditionally precedes Sunday worship or important church feast days, and consists of three sections: Vespers (the evening prayer), Matins (prayer that takes place from 3 to 5 AM), and First Hour (the first prayer at dawn).

This is an extensive, lengthy service, involving many psalms, litanies, and, most strikingly, chants that have been sung since antiquity, originating in the Byzantine Empire.

Rachmaninoff composed his version of the all-night vigil in 1915, after his Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Second Symphony had brought him international recognition. Rachmaninoff's “All-Night Vigil” consists of 15 movements, nine of which are based on traditional Eastern Orthodox church chants that come from Greece, Kiev, and Russia.

Six of the movements are Rachmaninoff’s own invention, using motifs typical of Eastern Orthodox melodies. The dramatic high point of the work is the ninth number, Blagosloven esi, Gospodi (Blessed is the Lord,) which tells the story of the Resurrection. Rachmaninoff fans will recognize this chant as one he used in  the exciting last movement of his final orchestral work,  “Symphonic Dances,” written for The Philadelphia Orchestra.

A few short years after he composed “All-Night Vigil,” Rachmaninoff, in his 40s, was forced to flee Russia with his wife and daughters, at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution. He had to reinvent himself, and decided to earn a living as a touring virtuoso pianist. Despite the fame and fortune he eventually earned, Rachmaninoff remained homesick for the Russia of his youth, from which he was forever exiled.

It is perhaps not a surprise that the sounds of his childhood, and of the Russian Orthodox Church reminded him of his homeland. He said that “All-Night Vigil,” along with his choral symphonic work “The Bells,” were his two favorite compositions. He asked that the 5th movement of “All-night Vigil,” Nunc dimittis, be sung at his own funeral.

Throughout the nine-movement composition, Rachmaninoff uses the full range of the human voice, in writing that masterfully blends the many lines of the mixed-voice choir, all anchored by the deep bass sound typical of  Russian Orthodox chants. The resonance of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses are as powerfully sonorous as the ringing of cathedral bells.

Schedule for Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil," sung by Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, John Leonard, conductor, on WRTI's Friday Choral Connection. All begin at 1:30 PM:

November 6th: 1. "O Come, Let us Worship," 2. "Praise the Lord, O My Soul," 3. "Blessed is the Man," 4. "Gladsome Light," 5. "Nunc dimittis"

November 13th: 6. "Ave Maria," 7. "Glory Be to God," 8. "Praise be the Name of the Lord," 9. "Blessed be the Lord," 10. "The Veneration of the Cross"

November 20th: 11. "Magnificat," 12. "Gloria in Excelsis," 13. "The Day of Salvation," 14. Christ is Risen," 15. Hymn to the Mother of God

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.