The Renaissance Choir is performing Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers) in Petersfield on Saturday 22 October and in Portsmouth with the Portsmouth Choral Union on Saturday 29 October 2022.

The work comprises a glorious tapestry of wide-ranging vocal textures including soaring sopranos and subterranean basses, and rich harmonies supporting wonderful melodies based on Eastern European Orthodox traditions. It is rightly regarded by many musicians as being the finest example of Russian sacred music.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows us the worst side of a totalitarian regime and an autocratic leader. Rachmaninov’s best-loved choral work was written at a time when the Russian character was described as “being highly ethical and caring towards their neighbours”. So, we’re performing this work as a prayer for peace and for suffering and aggression to end.

Written against a backdrop of political uncertainty in his homeland as the Bolshevik revolution was in its infancy and when World War I was at its most destructive, it contains an astonishing serenity, tranquillity and peacefulness. Did Rachmaninov write the work as a protest against the destruction around him? Did he fear the removal of the old guard of his fatherland and its replacement by a different form of totalitarianism? Did he see it as his act of penitence on behalf of a species seemingly hell-bent on destruction and death? We shall never know his motivation since little is recorded about the processes and intentions behind its construction.

Its serenity comes from the plainsong on which the entire work is based. Western European Renaissance composers such as Palestrina, Victoria and Byrd based most of their sacred music on plainsong, just as their predecessors had done. Eastern Europeans had to wait until Rachmaninov for this method to flower in such an intensely beautiful fashion.

A different inspiration in the work is found in the composer’s fascination with bells. We are familiar with the onion-shaped bell towers of the Kremlin, but these represent a fraction of a structure found across Russia. Unlike Western Europe’s tuning of bells into major scales, there is little homogeneity in the types of bells in Russia. There are towers with a small number of high-pitched bells; others have a single, deep-tolling bass bell; some have five well-tuned scales, and others defy classification. All around, Rachmaninov had bells to fascinate his imagination and to use in his music. There are many opportunities to hear these effects in the Vespers, which help to produce a soundscape that is irrefutably Russian.

It was composed in under 2 weeks in 1915 to benefit the Russian war effort. It is the setting for the important rite of the Orthodox Church, the office of Vespers, the sunset evening prayer service (also known as Evensong). It is hugely loved by singers: it uses a joyful arrangement of Slavonic vowels and clusters of consonants that convey the meaning of the words. It is challenging to sing, especially as it is written in the Church Slavonic language, and also since it requires considerable demands in terms of intonation and breath control.

Its movement No.5 descends to the third B-flat below mid-C. Rachmaninov disagreed that Russian basses capable of it were as rare as asparagus at Christmas. “I know the voices of my countrymen and what demands I can make on Russian basses!”

It was recorded for the first time only as recently as 1965 in the Soviet Union just for export because of Soviet anti-religious policies.

Wikipedia provides further info:

Peter Gambie, MD