Program Notes

"I have been thinking about the Liturgy for a long time, and for a long time I strove to write it. I started to work on it somehow by chance, and then suddenly became fascinated with it. And then I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time have I written anything with such pleasure." —Sergei Rachmaninoff

In the summer of 1910, Rachmaninoff finally found himself at home. The long American tour of 1909, during which he had performed his new Piano Concerto, No. 3 among other works, had left him miserable and homesick despite critical success. Now back at Ivanovka, the family country estate inherited from his uncle, he happily immersed himself in the landscape and musical traditions of his native Russia. He planted many willow trees. And then he took up an old project that had previously eluded him, composing his Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Opus 31, in about three weeks time.

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is the liturgy most commonly used by the Orthodox Church. It is so named because a portion of its text is attributed to John of Antioch, a 4th & 5th century Archbishop of Constantinople known as “Chrysostom” or “Golden-mouth” for the persuasive eloquence of his prayers. (He is also remembered for his markedly homophobic and anti Semitic homilies, although the liturgy that came to bear his name is neither.) The liturgy is comprised of a collection of hymns, litanies and prayers sung by the congregation in response to the Celebrant and the Deacon in a Eucharistic rite analogous to the Catholic mass. It is always sung. Today Coro Allegro performs a modified concert version of the full liturgy, omitting some of the more extended litanies of call and response.

Rachmaninoff, though a spiritual person, was notably not a religious one. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, his first large-scale sacred choral work, draws however upon the taproot of his childhood memories of attending church with his Grandmother:

We spent hours standing in the beautiful St. Petersburg churches. Being a greenhorn, I took less interest in God and religious worship than in the singing...especially in the cathedrals where one frequently heard the best choirs in St. Petersburg. I usually managed to find room underneath the gallery, and never missed a single note. (Rachmaninoff's Recollections)

Even later in life, according to his friend the composer Goedicke, “[Rachmaninoff] loved church singing, and often, even in winter, rose at seven and went by cab to the early liturgy at the Andronief Monastery, hearing the old chants sung by the monks.” The echoes of these chants can be heard in moments such as the opening of his Third Piano Concerto or the Dies Irae chant quoted in his Second Symphony.

But in setting the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Rachmaninoff was not merely drawing upon these echoes. He was also placing himself firmly in a new school of Russian composition centered on the church and chant. In the latter half of the 19th century, there had been a movement to rid Russian sacred music of foreign influence and to return it to its roots. Among the composers involved, Tchaikovsky, a major influence on Rachmaninoff, had composed his own Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 1878. His was a large-scale setting, whose movements of harmonized chant were intended for concert performance as well as liturgical purposes. Scandalized Orthodox Church authorities tried to suppress it. In the end, Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy was not approved for liturgical purposes, but he did manage to have it published, thus opening prospects for future Russian composers of polyphonic sacred music.

Rachmaninoff had been urged to write his own Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by Stepan Smolensky, a noted authority on Russian medieval music and conductor of the Moscow Synodal School Choir, made up of boys and men. In composing it, Rachmaninoff sought the advice of the current director of the school, the composer Alexander Kastalsky. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff set the entire Liturgy so that it might be performed either in a modified concert version, or be used in the Orthodox service.

Following the rules of the Russian Orthodox Church, the liturgy is a cappella, so as not to obscure the text. Rachmaninoff, however, did not actually set the ancient Znamenny chants of the ritual, but instead composed his own chant-like melodies, setting them to harmonies and textures that evoked the sounds of the Orthodox ritual.

To set his chants, Rachmaninoff turned away from traditional Western European counterpoint, drawing instead on techniques of “counter-voiced polyphony” developed by the new school of Russian church music. Although the music is tonal, the modes of early Russian music are also strongly in evidence. There are no fugues; melodic variation is more common than the harmonic variety. Parallel voice leading is allowed and melodies are set against drones. If you are reminded of folk music on occasion, it is with good reason, as many of these practices stem from the world of Russian folk song.

In the center of it all is the chant. The rhythm, stress and meaning of its phrases shape the constantly fluctuating shifts of dynamic and tempo through which the piece pulses and breathes. The smaller shapings accumulate into larger arcs that highlight the meaning of the text, and become driving, determining forces in the musical structure.

Complementing these techniques are Rachmaninoff’s vast, almost orchestral array of choral textures. Even though the writing remains largely homophonic, with the voices singing in the same rhythms, you will also hear double choirs, solo and small group lines, hushed murmurs of the congregation, unusual doublings that create new resonances, and constantly shifting groupings of different timbres. Adding to the expressive mix, Rachmaninoff’s kaleidoscopic palette of harmonic colors and contrasts in articulation help to bring the text alive.

The work was premiered on November 25, 1910 by the Moscow Synodal School Choir under the direction of Nikolai Mikhailovich Danilin. Despite the pains that Rachmaninoff had taken to comply with their strictures, the ecclesiastical authorities would not sanction the Liturgy for church performance due to what they called its “spirit of modernism.” A teacher of religious studies explained that it was “absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music.”

Whether or not it was indeed “too beautiful” to be proper church music, there seems no doubt of the wonderful nature of Rachmaninoff’s setting of the liturgy. The movements of the Liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom offer the performer and the listener alike beautifully nuanced examples of the myriad ways to set text expressively. But in a sense, Rachmaninoff does not just setthe words of the Liturgy, he brings the ritual radiantly to life. You not only hear the chant, you hear the congregation intoning it, the surging procession of priests, the stamp of folk song, and the great ringing peal of bells.

Listening Notes:

  • “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” (No. 2) contrasts two alternating ideas: the altos chant a blessing, while the outer voices surround them with a slower nimbus of harmonies. Moments to enjoy include the way the bass line descends adding resonance to the word “Ghospodi” (Lord) and the sudden rich divisi setting on “Slava” (glory).
  • “Glory to the Father” (No. 3) opens with radiant high chords to contrast the glory of God against the dense, humble prayers of humanity. Connecting the two are the sharp, painful, jumping intervals with which Rachmaninoff sets the crucifixion.
  • “In Thy Kingdom” (No. 4) begins with a beautiful invocation of heaven in the treble voices. Successive waves of blessings are set in a warm, lyrical chant that builds to songs of glory.
  • “Come, Let Us Worship” (No. 5) opens upon a slow, sweeping, expectant crescendo that rises up to worship, before falling on its knees to deliver a hushed and reverent alleluia.
  • “O Lord, Save... Holy God” (No. 6) begins with a quiet prayer that gives way to a vigorous ostinato folk dance and lilting songs of praise.
  • “The Cherubic Hymn” (No. 8) depicts shimmering ranks of cherubim, floating in the air, and singing of the coming of the King.
  • “The Creed,” (No. 10) opens with a simple affirming, repeated melody. The story of Christ unfolds in a rich tapestry of text setting that contains many beautiful moments, from the suffering of the Passion to the chattering excitement of the Resurrection.
  • “A Mercy of Peace,” (No. 11) begins gloriously with alternating waves of awe. The choir bows down to the Father, before rising to proclaim “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
  • That glorious sound of the Sanctus is an effective counterpoint to the moving simplicity of “We Hymn Thee” (No. 12) and the beautiful prayer to the Virgin Mary, “It is Truly Fitting.” (No. 13)
  • The choir divides into double choirs for the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father,” (No. 14), a reverent prayer for protection from evil.
  • “Praise the Lord from the Heavens” (No. 16) builds towards a joyous pealing of bells. “Blessed is He” (No. 17) offers a ringing affirmation of faith.
  • “Let our Mouths be Filled” (No. 18) is full of enharmonic modulations that spin forth in rich, pleasing lines. In contrast, the double choir, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (No. 19) is sung almost entirely on one chord in both choirs.
  • In “Glory to the Father and Many Years” (No. 20) the Liturgy ends as it began, with chanted blessings on the people and their leaders, and vigorous proclamations and prayers.

—Program notes by Yoshi Campbell. 

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