All-Night Vigil

Rachmaninoff grew up at a time when sacred choral music was enjoying a renaissance in Russia. Alexander Kastalsky, himself a prolific composer of sacred music, encouraged Rachmaninoff to follow Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov’s example by composing in this genre.

Rachmaninoff wrote the All-Night Vigil in two short weeks in early 1915. It and Kolokola (1913), a setting of a Russian translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Bells, were his favorite choral compositions. The vigil is a traditional Russian Orthodox service celebrated before major feast days or on Saturday evenings. It combines portions of Vespers, Matins, and Prime. Like all traditional Russian church music, it is a cappella; instruments are not permitted in Orthodox services. The text is in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church.

The All-Night Vigil Was First Performed as a Benefit for War Relief

Rachmaninoff set the 12 traditional parts of the vigil to music and added three movements of his own (Nos. 12, 13, and14), which, in his words, he created “in a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.”1 He made creative use of traditional church chants, most notably the znamenny style, the oldest form of unison, melismatic Orthodox chant, which dates back to the 11th century. Kastalsky lauded the work, proclaiming that “one must hear for oneself how simple, artless chants can be transformed in the hands of a great artist.”2

The accomplished synodical choir conducted by Nikolai Danilin first performed the Vigil in March of 1915 in Moscow, as a benefit for war relief. It was performed five more times over the next month to packed audiences and critical acclaim.

Russian icon for NovemberHumming Gives Texture and Continuity

The Vigil begins with the traditional call and response between the Deacon and Priest: “Glory to Thee, One and only, life-giving and indivisible Trinity, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” The choir then breaks into the invitation to prayer, No. 1: “Come, let us worship.” No. 2, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” features a pure, melodic chant, alternating between the alto soloist and the chorus. Rachmaninoff uses an utterly original device here: humming — not a part of the Orthodox musical tradition — to create additional texture and to give continuity to the sound.

No. 3, “Blessed Is the Man,” presents psalmic verses interspersed with triple “alleluias” that increase in fullness and range as the movement progresses. No. 4, “Gladsome Light,” is an ancient hymn that “originally accompanied the entrance of the clergy into the church and the lighting of the evening lamp at sunset.”3 The tenors open with a serene chant, which is then interwoven first with the female voices, then with the basses, evoking the fading sun and the evening light. The final measures, with the soprano notes shimmering above the descending lines of the other three voices, suggest the eternal light of Christ shining through the night.

“I Should Like This Sung at My Funeral”

The text of No. 5, “Lord, Now Lettest Thou,” is taken from the story of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke. Simeon had been promised by God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When the newborn Jesus was brought to the temple, Simeon realized who he was. He blessed God, saying, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for my eyes have seen thy salvation.” Rachmaninoff said of this movement: “My favorite number in the work . . . is the fifth canticle . . . I should like this sung at my funeral. Towards the end there is a passage sung by the basses  — a scale descending to the lowest B-flat in very slow pianissimo. After I played this passage [for Kastalsky and Danilin], Danilin shook his head, saying, ‘Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!’ Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make upon Russian basses!”4

 No. 6, “Rejoice, O Virgin,” is often performed as a separate piece and ranks among one of Rachmaninoff’s most popular compositions. No. 7, “Glory to God in the Highest,” is notable for the “onomatapoeic sound of bells, heard in the three-part chords of the soprano and tenor and later in the great rocking back and forth of the entire choir . . .  culminating with a massive, resounding chord in which all the overtones are layered. In a liturgical context, bells would be rung at this point of the service.”5

Triumph, Awe, Mystery

 No. 8, “Praise the Name of the Lord,” features “two musical layers . . .  the muscular znamenny chant sung by the altos and basses, while above it, the sopranos and tenors hover and swirl like choirs of cherubim and seraphim.”6 No. 9, “Blessed Art Thou, O Lord,” dramatically relates the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and his triumphant resurrection. Humming evokes the mystery of this most essential tenet of Christian faith. No. 10, “Having Beheld the Resurrection,” alternates between the male voices and female voices, responding to each other in triumph and awe at the mystery of the resurrection.

No. 11, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” is Mary’s paean to God upon learning that she is to give birth to Jesus. No. 12, “The Great Doxology,” is the pinnacle of the Vigil; here, again, the chant begins in the altos until finally the voices come together in the final, powerful prayer, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us.”

No. 13, “Today Salvation Has Come to the World,” and No. 14, “Thou Didst Rise,” return to the more meditative, traditional znamenny chant melodies, expressing a reverent gratitude for God’s mercy.  The Vigil ends with the triumphant and joyful “To Thee, Glorious Leader,” a hymn of thanks and praise to Mary, the “Theotokos” or Bearer of God.

— By Nina Anne Greeley

1. Max Harrison, Rachmaninoff:  Life, Works, Recordings, Continuum, London, 2005.
2. Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, New York University Press, 1956; Indiana University Press, 2001.
3. Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Complete Sacred Choral Works, foreword by Vladimir Morosan, from Monuments of Russian Sacred Music, Musica Russica, c. 1994.
4. Bertensson and Leyda.
5 . Morosan.
6.  Ibid.

For further listening, we recommend this recording, available from Amazon by clicking on the image.