Rachmaninoff's Choral Masterpiece: All-Night Vigil
By Thomas May
Choral music makes up a relatively small part of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s creative output, yet the medium inspired what many music lovers treasure as his most profoundly affecting composition. One of the towering achievements of the a cappella choral literature, the All-Night Vigil of 1915 occupies an especially cherished place in the Master Chorale’s repertory as well. Rachmaninoff’s fusion of technical demands and heartfelt expression, as Grant Gershon observes, “showcases the brilliance of the Master Chorale’s voices.” He refers to their previous performance of this music, in 2006, as “a pinnacle of my tenure.”
Certainly the All-Night Vigil stands out in the context of Rachmaninoff’s own career. His famous piano concertos and symphonic works are permeated by the showiness and sentiment of late romanticism, whose individualistic aesthetic also stamped his personality as a conductor and, above all, as a hyper-virtuoso of the keyboard. Yet here Rachmaninoff draws from the ancient musical tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church, with its self-effacing focus on communal worship. The Vigil shows Rachmaninoff anticipating an alternative to modernism’s abrupt break with tradition by reclaiming early-music elements outside the mainstream classical tradition—a strategy that continues to be followed by a wide spectrum of contemporary composers.
Rachmaninoff’s decision to set this liturgy (see sidebar) to music is sometimes seen as an anomaly in terms of his personal life as well, given his ambiguous relationship with the official Orthodox Church. By marrying his first cousin in 1902, he had violated the Church’s tenets and gave up attending services; unlike, say, Arvo Pärt, his outlook was, moreover, essentially secular.
Yet the better you get to know this music—composed in just two weeks early in the First World War—the clearer it becomes that Rachmaninoff is tapping into more than an abstractly aesthetic response to the sacred music tradition. After all, he associated it with deeply embedded memories from his childhood that provided a lifelong stimulus for his musical style in general. The iconic sounds of liturgical chant and of tolling bells are two compositional signatures woven into several of his secular works as well. Both The Bells, which sets a translation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe in the form of a choral symphony, and the All-Night Vigil incorporate reminiscences of the rituals and sounds of the composer’s youth in a Russia that would soon vanish. It’s no coincidence that Rachmaninoff singled both out as containing his favorite music.
Rachmaninoff’s experience composing The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 1910 paved the way for the All-Night Vigil. For the former, however,
he had written entirely original music which mimicked the archaic liturgical choral idiom, while the Vigil follows the Orthodox Church’s stipulation to use authentic chant sources as the basis for the majority of its numbers. But instead of drawing from a single, monolithic tradition, Rachmaninoff availed himself of three distinctive types of chant which had evolved over the centuries, thus enhancing the variety of his material (see sidebar).
Only about one-third of the Vigil’s canticle melodies are of Rachmaninoff’s own invention. The distinction remains subtle, in any case—so skillfully does he adapt his natural melodic style to the contours and rhythms of chant (as in the opening number). The composer himself pointed to Nos. 3 and 6 as examples of his aim to write “a conscious counterfeit of the ritual” in these freely composed parts.
By the same token, his treatment of the traditional material refashions it anew with touches of his own style—though in a subdued manner which never co-opts the contemplative nature of the texts. Rachmaninoff meanwhile adapts his remarkable gifts as an orchestrator to the purely vocal forces mandated by Orthodox tradition. Take the dark harmonic nuance mirroring the moment of the setting sun in No. 4, followed by the spiritual light that replaces it with the solo tenor’s radiant entrance. Or the gently rocking harmonies, another of the composer’s signatures, which cradle the serene resignation of No. 5—Rachmaninoff’s own favorite part of the Vigil, which he hoped would be sung at his funeral.
Some of the myriad techniques employed in the Vigil include finely calibrated dynamic shadings, a flexible rhythmic flow that naturally follows the words, and artful shifting between unison lines and polyphony; instead of the formality of traditional Western counterpoint, Rachmaninoff resorts to more folk-like devices such as imitation, sustained drones, and even humming. Especially characteristic are the quasi-orchestral effects created by continual changes in the choral texture and density from subdivision into parts, whether to foreground a particular line or to “pan” out to a larger perspective. As an expression of praise, for example, the voices blossom into a sumptuous array of eleven parts in No. 12. Rachmaninoff redistributes material to achieve variety and enhance atmosphere—as in the assignment of the chief melody to the basses at the beginning of No. 11, with harmonies on top.
The pivotal Resurrection narrative (No. 9) and the Magnificat setting (No. 11) both juxtapose highly contrasting elements, which are organized by a refrain. Along with such internal contrasts, Rachmaninoff uses contrasts on the larger scale: compare the miniature drama enacted in No. 9 with the folk-like exuberance of No. 8 or the serenely contemplative majesty that is sounded in No. 7.
Singing this magnificent choral canvas requires extraordinary endurance and flexibility. Probably the most notorious of the Vigil’s technical challenges comes in the final measures of No. 5, which requires the basses to make a sepulchral descent to a B-flat below low C. One way to prepare, Gershon jokes, is to ply the singers who have this extension “with cheap scotch and cigars.”
Yet these darker, melancholy textures have a counterpart in the cheerful sounds of praise and exuberant rhythms that bring the Vigil to a joyful close. Not long after the Vigil was premiered, the Bolshevik Revolution would drive the composer into permanent exile and put an end to the tradition of sacred choral music he had so successfully reinvigorated. But for the moment, at least, he was able to enjoy a triumphant reception of his music, which he later recalled provided “an hour of the most complete satisfaction.”
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Rachmaninoff selected source material, which he then varied in his choral setting, from the following Russian Orthodox chant styles:
— Znamenny chant (Nos. 8, 9, 12, 13, and 14): the most-ancient form of chant, dating back to the Byzantine era; these were considered especially archaic, many having fallen into disuse. They are characterized by unison, fluid melodies and were originally notated by special symbols (znamenny refers to “signs”).
— Greek chant (Nos. 2 and 15): a more-periodic, balanced melodic shape. These were a more-recent development, from the 17th century, and would have been more familiar to active worshipers than many of the znamenny chants.
— Kiev chant (Nos. 4 and 5): a more-recent
(17th-c) evolution of the znammeny chant, inflected by Ukrainian folk style and mixing solo and chorus.
Texts of the All-Night Vigil
The Vigil’s fifteen separate numbers set texts from the Psalms, Gospels, and Orthodox hymns and constitute part of a lengthy liturgical service which is celebrated in Orthodox churches to mark the eves of major feast days (and, in monasteries, to prepare for Sunday). Though Rachmaninoff’s setting is occasionally referred to as the Vespers, this is a misnomer, as the Vigil includes prayers used in both Vespers and Matins from the liturgical cycle of the hours. The texts involve calls to worship, praise of the creation, atonement, invocations of the Virgin Mary, and a dramatic narrative of the moment of Resurrection, which occurs at the center of Rachmaninoff’s setting (No. 9). Several of these prayers have Latin equivalents familiar to Westerners: for example, Nunc Dimittis (No. 5), Ave Maria (No. 6), Magnificat (No. 11), and Gloria (No. 12).