In 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was born into a family clinging to the last vestiges of artistocracy in Russia—the cultured traditions remained, but the money was mostly gone. After some false starts arising from academic laziness, deaths of two sisters from infectious illnesses, and a critical savaging of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s immense musical talents—he was a spectacular pianist and possessed an uncanny ear and musical memory—brought success and wide-spread recognition.
Partly drawing inspiration from a simpler setting of the same text by his beloved idol, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff wrote his All-Night Vigil (familiarly known as the Vespers) in a two-week creative burst in early 1915. First sung by the formidable Moscow Synodal Choir in support of the Russian war effort, the All-Night Vigil was an immediate success, and, by popular demand, five “encore” performances were given within the month.
Thanks to his grandmother’s attention to his spiritual upbringing, Rachmaninoff frequently attended Russian Orthodox services and was intimately familiar with its rich tradition of Slavonic (Greek, Kiev and Znamennïy) chant. Weaving numerous of these melodies, together with a few of his own invention (“conscious counterfeits,” as he called them), he created a unique late Romantic masterwork, and one that marked the end of an era—with the 1917 revolution, this religious music was banned. Nevertheless, outside Russia, the work gained enormous popularity, and Rachmaninoff himself requested that the 5th movement (the “Nunc Dimittis”--the Song of Simeon from the Gospel of Luke), with its notorious final low B-flat for the basses) be sung at his funeral.
For Christmas at Assisi 2017, we have prepared the first, third, fifth and sixth movements of the Rachmaninoff Vespers; we want to share this astonishing music with you, so please do join us next weekend in Lourdes Chapel!