Sergei Rachmaninov began his musical life as a boy, studying piano. He was eventually sent to the Moscow Conservatory, where he lived in the home of one of his teachers, Nicholai Zverev. For Sergei and two other students living in the house, the day began at 6 a.m. with piano practice and continued throughout the day as they learned the basics of music from studying four-hand arrangements of symphonies. Evenings were spent attending concerts in the city. On Sunday afternoons, Zverev held musical gatherings where the young Rachmaninov first met the prominent musicians of his day: Anton Rubenstein, Taneyev, Arensky, and the most influential of all, Tchaikovsky.
Encouraged to compose by Zverev, Rachmaninov eventually took final exams in both piano and composition. He graduated in 1892 with the highest possible mark, the Great Gold Medal, an honor bestowed only twice before. Shortly thereafter, the nineteen-year-old signed a publishing contract and began a career as a concert pianist. The following year his one-act opera Aleko, which had been his final “exam” at the Conservatory, was produced to great critical praise. Spurred by this success, Sergei began composing with ease in a variety of genres. It was at this time the he wrote his first sacred work, O Mother of God vigilantly praying. Having heard church services as well as concerts of sacred music sung by the Moscow Synodal Choir, composed of 50 boys and 30 men, the young composer was well aware of the a cappella tradition of the Orthodox Church. The Synodal Choir immediately premiered the work, and while the critics were not unanimous in their praise, it was clear that Rachmaninov had something new and beautiful to contribute to the repertoire of the Russian church.
But it wasn’t until 1910 that Rachmaninov composed his first full-length liturgical setting. This came after his only tour of America, which he loathed, during which he premiered his Third Piano Concerto (the famous “Rach 3,” from the movie Shine). After this he arranged to spend a few months of every year secluded at a family home in the country. It was during these summers that he found the necessary relaxation to compose several important works, including the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Over the centuries, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy came to be a series of hymns, litanies and responses that the choir sings throughout the service. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Russian church music, as well as art music in general, was heavily influenced by Western European ideals. But by the mid-nineteenth century there was a resurgence of interest in the ancient prototypes, including chant. Composers began to create polyphonic settings of the chant melodies as well as freely composed original versions. Tchaikovsky himself tried his hand at both approaches, employing harmonized chant in his All-Night Vigil (1878) and a more effusive originality in his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1882). The latter work, in fact, shocked some of the more conservative churchmen and served to open the door to a series of later settings by leading composers at the turn of the century. These included, among others, Arkangelsky, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Gretchaninoff, and Chesnokov.
Rachmaninov followed in the tradition of these great composers. He was not raised in the church, nor did he attend regularly. As a result, when he began to compose this work, he did not fall back on common formulas or established forms for the various hymns. Rather, he gave careful consideration to the texts, setting them in such a way as to point out meanings and nuances that other settings generally lack. The result is a work that is unsurpassed in its musical content, formal breadth and sheer beauty of choral writing.
In fact, it is unclear whether Rachmaninov intended for this piece to be performed in the context of a church service or in the concert hall. The Liturgy was first heard on the concert stage, in a performance by the Moscow Synodal Choir that included only some of the work’s major hymns. But as he chose to set all of the litanies, hymns, prayers and responses, Rachmaninov clearly wanted to make a liturgical presentation of this music a possibility. A modern concert performance becomes tricky, however. The complete work, including long chanted litanies by the deacon and celebrant, runs at least 90 minutes. While I have chosen to cut many of the extended and “little” litanies, we are including a few of the chanted introductions and blessings to give you a flavor of how the choir works in conjunction with the vested party. We are excited to welcome Russian bass-baritone, Nikolai Massenkoff, who will be singing chants that would normally be performed by either the priest or a deacon in an orthodox service. The entire work will be sung in Church Slavonic, the language of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the name given to the standard (Byzantine) rite in the Orthodox Church. This is the order of worship that is followed routinely on Sundays. John Chrysostom was a fifth century bishop who is most famous today for his sermons. He was exiled for his attempts to reform the church from corrupt leadership and was later considered a hero for these actions. He did not create this liturgy; rather, his activism and brilliant preaching are remembered by naming the service in his honor.