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What is it about Rachmaninov's Vespers (or the 'All-Night Vigil') that makes it such a haunting cornerstone of the choral repertoire? Discover what really went into this remarkable piece.
Any mention of Sergei Rachmaninov and thoughts tend to turn either to his extravagant, virtuosic piano concertos or to the Romantic lyricism of his symphonies. It’s somewhat surprising, then, that this most heart-on-your-sleeve of composers decided to turn to the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church to compose a quiet, reflective and deeply moving set of vespers.
His 'All-Night Vigil', to give it its official title, was composed and premiered in 1915. Russia was in political turmoil at the time. The First World War had begun the previous year, Russia was committed to securing the eastern front on behalf of the Allies, and internally the country was still in a mess as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905. It’s not surprising that Rachmaninov was looking to write something more introspective than usual.
The composer had a deep and very personal religious faith, which he expresses beautifully through this unaccompanied set of choral vespers. They are separated into two parts: the evening Vespers and the morning Matins, both full of exquisitely rich harmonies. Rachmaninov followed the church’s tradition of basing ten of the fifteen sections on Russian chants, with the remaining five being more free-form. Those five were so similar to the other ten, though, that Rachmaninov himself described them as ‘conscious counterfeits’.
Illustration: Mark Millington