By the time the 19th century was lurching into the 20th, the era of church music’s hegemony in what we call classical music was long past. Bach and Handel, icons though they were, belonged to a faded tradition. Composers of the new day wrote mostly secular music for audiences who heard it in the concert hall or tried their hands at it around the piano in their parlors.
Great, explicitly religious works of music had become relatively rare in the times of Wagner, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff. Still, Rachmaninoff, though not deeply religious himself, was moved and inspired enough by the traditional sounds of the Eastern Orthodox Church to compose some of his most sublime music.
A Compressed ‘All-Night’ Vigil
The pinnacle of this strand of his work resounded through Carnegie Hall last week as the Clarion Choir sang Rachmaninoff’s a capella suite for the canonical hours of the Church, the All-Night Vigil (sometimes inaccurately called the “Vespers”) from 1915.
Led by artistic director, conductor and scholar Steven Fox, the choir performed the 15 movements along with several of the ancient Byzantine and Kyivan chants that inspired Rachmaninoff’s settings. The Clarion singers know the music well, having recorded it for their most recent album (reviewed here).
They made that recording at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, where last New Year’s Eve I heard them sing Rachmaninoff’s earlier choral masterpiece, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The acoustics of a place like Carnegie Hall are very different from those of a church. They allow for no disguising of imperfections in timing or balance. You have to be brilliant.
Fox and the Clarion singers came as close to perfection as you’re ever likely to hear. The startling low C from bass soloist Glenn Miller at the start of the introductory call to worship, and the celestial harmonies backing earthy alto soloist Mikki Sodergren in the second piece, presaged an essentially flawless account of this extraordinary suite of a capella prayer.
Sodergren’s soulful clarity showed both her impressive ability to project the alto range over a full choir and, inversely, the choir’s skill at dynamic restraint. The middle voices as a group take the lead too in part of the third piece, “Blessed Is the Man,” (“Blazhen muzh” in the Church Slavonic text).
The Chants that Inspired Rachmaninoff
You get a real sense of the foundational chants at the start of “O Gladsome Light,” which featured tenor John Ramseyer. This movement opens with a ghostly plainchant melody from the women’s voices, built on just four notes of the scale. To demonstrate the original music more authentically, the men then sang an original Kyivan chant, a sonority that would be familiar to anyone who has heard Gregorian chant.
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the pieces in the “Great Vespers” section of the Vigil is another tenor feature, “Lord, Now Lettest Thou,” with gently swaying women’s harmonies, an explosive climax, and the bass descending all the way to a low B-flat at the end. The composer himself loved this movement so much he wanted it played at his funeral.
Amidst the “Matins” movements the choir inserted a Znammeny chant sung by the sopranos (Znammeny and Kyivan are the types of Eastern Orthodox chants from which the composer drew). Women’s voices were absent from Orthodox church music of old, but by Rachmaninoff’s time they had been welcomed, so amid the composer’s own SATB music it’s most appropriate to also hear a traditional chant sung by the higher voices.
In the original tradition, the prayer sequence went literally all night, through sunrise and beyond. The “Matins” section included the brilliant energy of “Praise the Name of the Lord,” the hypnotic verses-and-refrain of “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord,” and the dramatic spectacle of “Having Beheld the Resurrection.” The long and complex “Great Doxology” cast a spell too, and “Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb” highlighted the choir’s fine delineation of Rachmaninoff’s intricate internal harmonies. The celebratory spirit of the final piece felt well-deserved.
The Clarion Choir’s recording of the All-Night Vigil is available now. I recommend it wholeheartedly.