I have always liked the music of Sergey Rachmaninoff, born in Russia and ultimately a citizen of the USA, achieved shortly before his death.
I once presented to an informal discussion group his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. The piece is a set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, which has inspired works by several composers. The 18th variation in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody was made popularly famous in the romantic 1980 film Somewhere in Time. Here is the pianist Anton Rubenstein playing the 18th Variation.
Why am I writing about this here?
At the 30th birthday party of my wife’s son, Max, I met his aunt whom I hadn’t previously met, and learned she was a singer with Sofia Kyrkokör (Sofia Church Choir). She invited us to attend, the next day, Sunday, at Sofia Church on Södermalm island, Stockholm, an a capella concert of Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil. I had not known of this piece and was intrigued. So Eva and I attended. The group of singers also included the Sofia Vocalensemble.
The All-Night Vigil, Opus 37, is an a cappella choral composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff, written and premiered in 1915. It consists of settings of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox All-night vigil ceremony. It has been praised as Rachmaninoff’s finest achievement and “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church“. It was one of Rachmaninoff’s two favorite compositions along with The Bells, and the composer requested that one of its movements (the fifth) be sung at his funeral. The title of the work is often translated as simply Vespers, which 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.
1 Come, Let Us Worship (Psalm 95)
2 Praise the Lord, O My Soul (Greek Chant)
3 Blessed is the Man (Psalm 1:1)
4 O Gentle Light (Kiev Chant)
5 Lord, Now Lettest Thou (Kiev Chant)
6 Rejoice, O Virgin (Hail Mary)
7 The Six Psalms
8 Praise the Name of the Lord (Znamenny Chant)
9 Blessed Art Thou, O Lord (Znamenny Chant)
10 Having Beheld the Resurrection
11 My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord
12 The Great Doxology (Znamenny Chant)
13 Troparion: Today Salvation is Come (Znamenny Chant)
14 Troparion: Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb (Znamenny Chant)
15 O Queen Victorious (Greek Chant)
The singing was exemplary to my ear. I was expecting sounds similar to what I have heard in Greek Orthodox churches, but there were only hints of these familiar musical flavors, along with whispers of some pre-Soviet Russian themes found in the work of many Russian composers.
I am no expert, to be sure, but I felt this was a very modern piece, more western Europe than eastern Europe sounding. The solo chanting was very wonderful and appropriate to the venue, a large open space in the main room of the church (I don’t know the proper name) with a high, vaulted ceiling that contained and presented the singing perfectly, without echoes that competed for my ear’s attention.
Rachmaninoff was a great pianist as well as composer, and his music was a staple in the household of my youngest days before World War two, in San Francisco.
It was fulfilling to hear more of the great man’s work, and executed so lovingly and well.