How Rachmaninoff and the Orthodox Choral Tradition Conquered the West

There was a time not so long ago when Sergei Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil was virtually unknown outside of Russia. But an early transliteration of the work and some pivotal recordings helped to catch the attention of Western choral groups and audiences. We interview choral conductor and Russian music expert Alexander Ruggieri, who tells the story of the Vigil's emergence as one of the best-loved choral masterpieces.

Chorus America: First, tell us how this piece came to be. I understand that Rachmaninoff took very little time to compose it.

Alexander Ruggieri: Rachmaninoff wrote it in three to four weeks, depending on your source material, which is quite fast considering how complex the piece is. It was completed in 1915. He had written a couple of other things before this for the church-a multi-movement concerto in 1893 during his student year, but that was never published in his lifetime.

In 1910 he undertook the Divine Liturgy. He tried to learn some things about church rubrics and what was appropriate. It was performed and the response was lukewarm; it was not repeated.

Then he decided to do the Vigil, Opus 37. He had already written one of his great pieces, The Bells, based on a Russian translation of a text by Edgar Allan Poe. That was his Opus 35, and he always said it was his favorite work. It must have been in the creation of that piece that he started thinking in terms of choral work again and doing something for the church. Unlike the Liturgy which was through-composed, he wanted to base it on the ancient chants of the Russian Orthodox Church originating from the 11th to 16th centuries-music that scholars were unearthing from around the 1870s and into the early 20th century.

In the early days of the Russian Orthodox Church, monophonic Znamenny chant, its offshoots, and variants were the style of music in the Church. By the 15th and 16th century, there began the evolution of polyphonic multi-voiced music and that held sway. The chant tradition was relegated to a very few pieces, as a more Western approach was taken. But then around 1870 musicologists began "re-finding" these old chants and started using them as the basis for new multi-voiced compositions. By the early 1900s it was an accepted part of music, and new composers who were writing specifically for the Russian Orthodox Church were using chant as the basis for their music.

Rachmaninoff was swayed this way. One of his teachers was an important musicologist specializing in chant named Stepan Smolensky. Rachmaninoff investigated the chants and decided to use them as the basis for most of the Vigil. He dedicates the Vigil to the memory of Smolensky.

Was Rachmaninoff Orthodox himself or a religious person?

Oh, yes. In those days the vast majority of Russia was Orthodox. There has been some question as to whether Rachmaninoff was a believer. I would guess that he was a typical layperson in church. He went to church—he enjoyed the sounds, the smells, the ritual--but he was not steeped in the church like some other composers who were writing for the Orthodox Church predominately.

Because of his lack of knowledge, Rachmaninoff depended a great deal on information provided to him by Alexander Kastalsky, director of the Moscow Synodal School and perhaps the most outstanding musical ethnographer at the time. Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil did not come forth in a vacuum, but was part of a long line of similar settings done by important Russian composers (not unlike the masses and vespers done by Western composers).

There were already quite a few pieces written and collected, both Liturgies and Vigils--works over the previous 20 years or so—by Gretchaninoff, Ippolitov Ivanov, Tchesnokov, and even Tchaikovsky. However, Rachmaninoff's setting was considerably different in scope and size, and was clearly the pinnacle of such musical creations for the Orthodox Church.

Where does the name All-Night Vigil come from?

It is called All-Night Vigil because in the early days of the church, in the third or fourth century in Palestine, the Vigil indeed went all night. It started at sunset and went to early morning. It was a service made up of the three sections—the Vespers, Matins, and First Hour. The Vespers emphasis is on the Old Testament, ending with St. Simeon's prayer, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace."

The Matins has as its emphasis the New Testament, which is then followed by the office of First Hour. It is the combination of these services together that makes it the All-Night Vigil.

So the service really did go on all night?

As the centuries went by and cathedral practice moved away from monastic practice, the All-Night Vigil was shortened to an evening service of some two to three hours in length. However, it retains the main elements of the old practice.

The Vigil is a preparatory piece to the Liturgy—to the Mass. It is celebrated on Saturday nights and on the eve of great feasts where a Liturgy would be served the following day. 

When you first conducted the All-Night Vigil, it was almost completely unknown in the West. What helped the piece to break through?

There was a wonderful composer-sanctioned edition in English, translated by Canon Winifred Douglas, that H.W. Gray Publications put out in 1920, just five years after the piece was premiered in Russia. It is still available today. That was the heyday of large church choirs in the U.S. and lots of Russian music was being published and performed in the 1910s and the 1920s.

Even so, when I conducted the Western United States premiere of the Vigil in 1973, there was just one recording available on the Melodiya/Angel label. That recording by the State Academic Choir USSR was made during a period of atheism in the Soviet era. Although there are incredible failings as far as pitch and tone quality, there are idiomatic things about it--that it is a Russian choir in the Russian style—that still win a place in my heart.

By the mid- and late-70s, other recordings began to be available from Europe, of varying quality. Further recordings in the 80s eventually began to have an impact. One was by Mstislav Rostropovitch, former conductor of the National Symphony, with the Choral Arts Society of Washington (1982). A more recent recording with Robert Shaw (1990) reached a wide audience, and put Shaw's imprimatur on the piece. Rachmaninoff writes every little nuance of what he wants in the piece, and both of those conductors did an incredible job reflecting all those minute nuances.

The Musica Russica transliteration that came out 20 years ago helped too. It is an accessible edition and a consistent transliteration. Most everyone uses this edition.

The main problem with performing pieces from Russia or any of the Slavic countries in Eastern Europe is language. It is not a language that singers are steeped in. They do French, German, Latin, Italian, but not Slovenian, or Russian, or Church Slavonic. That is why singers and conductors were put off from doing this literature, whether the solo songs or choral music.

Is Church Slavonic greatly different from Russian?

I think of it as something akin to what Middle English is to modern English. It's not completely incomprehensible to a Russian speaker, but it is not your everyday language. It is archaic. There are endings to words and vocabulary that are different. In 1905 there was talk of updating the language in the church from Slavonic to Russian, but then the revolution happened in 1917 and that ended that!

The language is lovely in its way. I think of Russian and Slavonic as an interesting mix of Italian vowels and German consonants. It has enough drama with the rolled r's and the "sh" sounds, yet you have these pure vowels that never change. It's a beautiful language to sing in.

What sets All-Night Vigil apart for you?

Being Russian Orthodox myself, it speaks to me because I know the tradition from which it comes. I never fail to be touched by the spirituality of the music. It is mystical, emotional, and with the sonorities and the sound and the harmonies, it just touches you. I think that is what comes across to Western audiences so much. It is like listening to Palestrina or Victoria. It is pure spirituality but obviously a different ethos than Renaissance music.

Rachmaninoff does a masterful job managing the chants. The ones he wrote himself feel like they are 500 years old. That spiritual transcendence is what sets this piece apart.