I fear I may have maligned poor Rachmaninoff Friday in highlighting his ill-tempered response to Harpo Marx’s goading. Here the guy was just trying to get away for the weekend and do a little composing when this harpist gets on his last nerve, literally harping on his least favorite piece (Prelude in C-sharp Minor). One could forgive him if he verbally vented his frustrations at his less-than-angelic next-door neighbor. At the risk of further maligning Sergei, I can imagine the wealth of eloquent Russian obscenities that might have ornamented the air of that little California bungalow. Russian profanity is a linguistic art form, with a stunning multitude of variations to a given theme. But I digress…
Let us move from the profane to the sacred, and restore Rachmaninoff’s honor. One of my favorite compositions by Rachmaninoff (and one of his favorites, as you will see below) is his choral masterpiece known in the west as All-Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37, written in less than two weeks (!) and first performed in 1915.
Prior to Rachmaninoff’s rendering, the text had been set by Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky’s is firmly rooted in Russian soil. Rachmaninoff’s goes further afield, incorporating distinctly western harmonies, but it always looks lovingly toward home. There is a wonderful story about Rachmaninoff and the Vigil. Here’s what Rachmaninoff told his biographer:
My favorite number in the work, which I love as I do The Bells, is the fifth canticle, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace” [Luke 2:29]. 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 a very slow pianissimo. After I played this passage Danilin [director and conductor of the Moscow Synodical Choir] 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!
from Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music
From the stirring first movement one finds moments of exquisite beauty and emotion, rich harmonies juxtaposed with traditional chant tunes. The pealing of joyful Russian church bells is imitated by human voices. The entire range of human vocal expression is showcased, from the heavenward soaring of soprano voices, expressive solos by altos and tenors, and the basses plumbing the depths of human vocal capability, artfully. The strength and majesty of the human voice is placed at the service of ancient and profound expressions of belief. And in its beauty it is, in both meanings of the phrase, beyond belief.
Here is a transliteration and translation of the text including notes on each movement. Here is the score.
Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sophia Satina, Indiana University Press, 1956, p 191.