Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Meaning of the Rachmaninov Vespers

I came across this excellent article of Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther by chance, and having always loved the Rachmaninov Vespers, decided to share it with you. Go HERE for some biographical background on Rachmaninov himself.

Vespers, the evening prayer service of the Orthodox Church, is the reason for Rachmaninov’s greatest achievement. True, the music is not the All Night Vigil Service (as the Russians call it) word for word, and the music is more symphonic than one would expect to hear in a church service. But there are many passages in which the traditional melodies of the Russian Orthodox Church may be heard; and the composer instances those for Gladsome Radiance (Melody of the Kiev Tradition); Nunc Dimittis (the same); Glory Be to God, Laud ye the Name of the Lord; Blessed art Thou, O Lord; Gloria in Excelsis; the two Hymns ‘Today Hath Salvation Come’ and ‘When Thou, O Lord, Hadst Arisen’ (all Melody of the Znamen Tradition); with finally Hymn to the Mother of God (Melody of the Greek Tradition). Out of 15 pieces, 9 deliberately evoke comparison with their original sources; and the last piece looks lovingly towards the mother tradition of the Russians – Greek Orthodoxy.

Rachmaninov wrote this music in 1916, when the future of Russia was about to become a prolonged, dehumanizing catastrophe, through the Revolution which Nicholas II and Alexandra by their appalling policies had made inevitable. Even Nicholas’ abdication was the result of his incompetence. But there is in Russian history, and in the heart of all Russians, a depth of sorrowful love, which receives catastrophe as a kind of revelation. At least, this is the general argument of Nicholas Berdyaev, one of Russian Orthodoxy’s greatest writers and advocates. As he says:

The mystery always remains; it is deepened by our knowledge. Knowledge destroys only false mysteries created by our own ignorance, but there are other mysteries which confront us when we reach the depth of knowledge. God is a mystery, and the knowledge of God is communicated in mystery (Apophatic Theology). Rational theology is false theology, for it denies the mystery that surrounds God.

All of this Berdyaev and the other Russians of the Emigration came to understand through the Revolution of 1917.

To think of Rachmaninov, who was a believing Russian Orthodox, picking up the trend of events and yearning by his music for a resolution of conflict through prayer, is inevitable. He gives to his bass line passages which Russian basses find normal. He gives to all the voices new levels of aspiration and new ways of reaching them. Yet because Rachmaninov writes with the knowledge of his tradition and with an apprehension that Russia will soon be destroyed, his use of the traditional melodies opens them up to other minds and gives them to a wider world. Those who value his symphonies for their romantic power, or who have ever suffered the intense tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s 4th , 5th and 6th symphonies will find all that here. But there is more. Go HERE to continue reading.


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