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CD Review: Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

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The term ‘liturgy’ can be confusing to some, so a brief definition and explanation. While the term normally describes any set formal worship procedure (as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer), in the Orthodox Church it refers specifically to the eucharistic rite (which the Roman Catholic Church would call simply ‘Mass’).

St. John Chrysostom was called to be bishop of Constantinople in 398. He was known for his eloquence (‘Chrysostom’ means “golden-mouth”), and his extant sermons and commentaries are still widely used by Christians in all denominations. Unfortunately, many of his works have been misunderstood in modern times by those who would call him an anti-Semite.

Rachmaninov composed this choral work, his first of three choral pieces, in 1910. Up until then, the best-known choral interpretation of Chrysostom’s Liturgy was Tchaikovsky’s 1878 work, which the Russian church actually condemned as being too “frivolous.” Rachmaninov intended his work to be performed in church, though he did not use any actual verbage from Chrysostom’s liturgy in the actual work. Unfortunately, the church was unimpressed with Rachmaninov’s work, though they considered it “wonderful … but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music.”

I would have to disagree with that assesment. The choral work in this recording is masterful, and the tone is deeply reflective and worshipful. “Come, Let Us Worship” absolutely soars, ecouraging the listener to join in worship. The bass singing the “Augmented Litany” gave me chills. The performance is powerful — something that is often unfortunately lacking in modern worship. The fact that the work is performed in Church Slavonic heightens the historic feel to the piece — the church historian in me loved that as much as the music fan in me enjoyed the beauty of the piece.

Our modern idea of worship music has devolved. We have gone from the majesty of this Liturgy to ‘praise choruses.’ We’ve gone from unaccompanied choral singing to praise and worship bands. Music is certainly a matter of taste, but after listening to this CD I found myself longing for worship music that is far richer than three verses, a chorus, and a guitar solo. I recommend this CD, but be careful — it may change how you look at your own worship experience.

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About Warren Kelly

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joanie

    I personally prefer the St. John Chrysostom Liturgy be performed by a choir with only simple organ. Much purer, much simpler. In the Greek Orthodox Church, simple and pure goes over very well.

  • Warren

    That’s why I enjoy this so much — it’s acapella. The voices are so expressive that accompaniment is not needed.

    Amazon offers a CD that is essentially a recording of the actual Liturgy of St. John, rather than an interpretation. That went on my wish list last night.

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