Rachmaninov Vespers

Rachmaninov Vespers

Bristol Cathedral
Saturday, 17th March 2007

Peter Leech    Conductor
Nigel Nash    Organ

As the Choir’s anniversary celebrations got into full swing, we performed Rachmaninov’s sublime and atmospheric setting of the Vespers in the magical atmosphere of Bristol Cathedral. Written just before the Russian Revolution of 1917, the work seems to encapsulate the end of an era. The long tradition of Orthodox church music was about to be challenged, never to return with the same certainties. Rachmaninov, a practising Orthodox Christian manages to touch hearts with his evocative harmonies and yearning melodies.


(view programme notes )

Music for unaccompanied Choir

Rachmaninov Vespers op 37
Tchaikovsky Dostoino yest (We bless Thy name) from Nine Liturgical Choruses (Moscow, 1885)
Mikhail Glinka Izhe Kheruvimyi   (Cherubic Hymn)
G.Y.Lomakin Izhe Kheruruvimyi   (Cherubic Hymn)
Stevan Mokranjac Izhe Kheruruvimyi   (Cherubic Hymn)

Organ pieces played by Nigel Nash

Alexander Glazunov - Fantasia in G minor, Op. 110
- Prelude and Fugue in D major


Programme Notes

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
A native of Semyonovo, near Novgorod in north-western Russia, Rachmaninov was born into a noble family of Tartar descent who had been in the service of Tsars since the 16th century. His parents, both amateur pianists, having unfortunately squandered the family fortune, were reduced to a single estate at Oneg, where Rachmaninov had his first piano lessons with his mother. Neither parent noticed any particularly outstanding talent in the young Rachmaninov until his teenage years. To settle debts Oneg was sold in 1882 and the family moved to Saint Petersburg, where Sergei studied at the Conservatory before moving to Moscow where he took piano lessons from Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti. He also studied harmony under Anton Arensky, and counterpoint under Sergei Taneyev.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution Rachmaninov, the son of a nobleman, believed his life and those of his wife and two daughters to be in considerable danger. They left Saint Petersburg for Stockholm on 22 December 1917, settling firstly in Denmark (spending a year giving concerts throughout Scandinavia), finally departing for New York from Oslo in November 1918, marking the beginning of the American period of the composer's life. The family never returned to Russia. Rachmaninov’s music was banned in the Soviet Union for several years and his compositional output diminished, partly because he spent most of his time performing to support the family. Nevertheless, he still managed to produce some of the best-known orchestral works of the twentieth century in the latter part of his career, including magnificent piano concertos for which he is best known.

Rachmaninov composed his setting of the Vespers (or All-Night Vigil) in a period of less than two weeks early in 1915, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. At the time he was employed as Inspector of Music at the Nobility High School for girls in Moscow, a post that effectively relieved him of obligatory military service. His primary duties included the organization of musical events in aid of the Russian war effort, and it was at one of these concerts, on 10 March, that the Vespers Opus 37 were heard for the first time. The work was received with such enthusiasm that four further performances were immediately arranged, all of which attracted large audiences. The Vespers remain among most evocative, dramatic and harmonically sumptuous in the Russian Orthodox repertory.

The work is scored for unaccompanied chorus which at times divides into as many as twelve separate vocal parts. There are a total of fifteen movements, although to allow for the inclusion of other works we have on this occasion omitted Numbers 2 and 13.  Some movements are short, with elements of hymnody, both in texture and melodic style, while others are considerably more complex structures in which thematic material is continuously reworked. Overlapping textures create a kind of shimmering sonic montage, sometimes rich, resonant and fast, at other times dark and brooding, typical of the slow, almost lugubrious effect by which the Orthodox tradition is typically characterised.

Although Rachmaninov worked within the traditional texts and liturgy (using znamenny chant as the basis of most of the melodic construction) the rhythms and harmonic language of the more elaborate movements are far from the more homophonic works typical of the Orthodox repertory from previous centuries. To a certain extent Rachmaninov can be seen as the musical equivalent of a painting from Kandinsky’s middle period, before the utter abstraction of the later period but still moving away from structure for its own sake. The impact of the Great War upon creative artists cannot be overstated, and although Rachmaninov was later seen as a traditionalist (perhaps to satisfy the American market) his early choral music is very much part of an experimental phase. One of the best illustrations of this is the vivid harmonic language in the setting of the Song of Mary or Magnificat (Vyelichit dusha moya). After the initial statement in G minor Rachmaninov introduces the refrain ‘Chestnyeshuyu Kheruvim’? (More honourable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim) in a brighter, more angelic B flat major. Thenceforth after each section of text this refrain, following the same harmonic patterns in major or minor, is varied by subtle inflections in certain parts. The third refrain has an added third flat and the fourth is itself transposed up a fourth, as if to reinforce the height and translucent brightness of the heavenly host. The final refrain, beginning without flats or sharps in the ethereal purity of C major, perhaps signifies the conclusion of the skillfully manipulated harmonic journey through the Magnificat, and yet by way of a G major dominant relationship there is a sudden return to the opening key of G minor. That there are five refrains is also significant, representative both of the Five Joys of Mary but each with parallel penitential significances reflecting the five wounds of Christ at the Crucifixion.

Gavril Yakimovich Lomakin (1812-1885)
Lomakin was a choral conductor, teacher and composer who joined the choir of Count Sheremetyev in St.Petersburg at the age of 10. In stark contrast to the upbringing of Rachmaninov, Lomakin’s father had been one of Sheremetyev’s serfs, so it was musical skill alone that enabled him to enjoy the benefits of an education which would otherwise have been denied to a boy from the lower orders of society. Whilst at the choir school Lomakin was taught by the Italian Antonio Sapienza and when his voice broke in 1830 he was engaged as a singing teacher to the choir. He was appointed director in 1850 and for 22 years the Sheremetyev choir became one of the most important musical institutions in Russia, giving concerts of traditional church music as well as new works and folk songs. In 1862 Balakirev invited Lomakin to found the Free School of Music and from 1848-59 the latter also taught at the Imperial Chapel. His sacred works, composed mostly for the Sheremetyev Choir, were composed in the traditional style reminiscent of Dimitri Bortynanski and Glinka, but his musical language is no less dramatic and this setting of the Cherubic Hymn, falling as it does into typical tripartite structure followed by a ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ is worthy of a place in any concert of Orthodox liturgical music. It is doubtful whether this piece has been heard in Bristol before this performance.

Stevan Stoianovic Mokranjac (1856-1914)
The compositions of Stevan Mokranjac are likely also to be unfamiliar to Bristol audiences and probably British audiences as a whole. His setting of the Izhe Kheruvimye (Cherubic Hymn) is probably a Bristol premiere, at least as a performance from a local choir. The Balkans conflict of the 1990s has undoubtedly contributed to a negative image of Serbia, and relations between the ethnic groups of the Balkan region have always been tense, generating strong emotional impulses at home and abroad, but it is important to recognize that before the events of recent times, Serbia had its own strong musical tradition of which Mokranjac was a vital part. A composer, musicologist and conductor, he studied in Munich with Rheinberger (1879-84), in Rome with Parisotti (1884-5) and in Leipzig with Reinecke (1885-7). From Leipzig he returned to Belgrade and became director of the Choral Society there, later founding the Serbian String Quartet in which he played Second Violin. In 1899 Mokranjac founded the Serbian School of Music in Belgrade and remained its director until his death. He is rightly recognized as one of the most important people in the history of music in Serbia, without whom many of its national cultural institutions might not have been established. He also founded the Serbian Choral Society which became world famous, undertaking tours in Russia, Germany, Austria and Hungary. Like Bela Bartok in Hungary and Ralph Vaughan Williams in Britain, Mokranjac was an avid collector and recorder of traditional folksongs from his native region, as well as further away in Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Folk songs were the inspiration for his own works, and it is said that the refrain in his Cherubic Hymn is known by heart by many Serbs, for whom it has become a national melody. The Serbian Orthodox Church was of course an offshoot of the Russian tradition, and Serbian Orthodox Music has its roots in the same history. In the Cherubic Hymn Mokranjac uses the refrain to punctuate sections of text, at times adding harmonic shifts which are similar to the way in which Rachmaninov varies the refrains in the Magnificat from the Vespers.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Mikhail Glinka, like Rakhmaninov, was the son of a wealthy landowner He studied with the singer Zamboni in his early years and later travelled to Milan, where he contemplated the creation of a truly Russian national opera. With his opera 'Ruslan and Lyudmilla' he has been acknowledged as the father of the Russian school of composition and although church music played a very small part in his career, 'Cherubic Hymn' is now one of the best-loved favourites of Russian church music. It was written in 1837, the year he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Imperial Chapel by Tsar Nicholas I as a reward for his first opera 'A Life for the Tsar'. 'Cherubic Hymn' has been compared to works by S.S.Wesley and Robert Pearsall and although a possible English influence might at first seem totally erroneous it should also be noted that from 1803 to 1837 the composer John Field was a resident of St. Petersburg and from 1817 to about 1820 Field taught the young Glinka the piano. It is especially significant that we perform this beautiful work in the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Dostoino yest , from Nine Liturgical choruses (Moscow, 1885).

Tchaikovsky is of course best known for his orchestral music, his ballets and symphonies having become the most popular repertoire performed in the theatres and concert platforms of Europe for the last hundred years. His first foray into church music began with the 'Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom', composed in 1878 and published in 1879. After hearing the music in the Imperial chapel Tsar Alexander III responded by asking Tchaikovsky to write more church music when he met the composer at an audience in 1884. Ivan Moody probably best sums up the mood of Tchaikovsky's sacred choral works; 'a liturgy that is truly Russian in spirit, combining a restrained and reverent approach to the texts with some harmonic writing absolutely characteristic of the composer. His music for the Church marks the end of the domination of Russian sacred music by [foreign] influences and the initiation of the study and recovery of the Russian Church's musical past.'

© Peter Leech 2007

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
Russia isn't well known for ts organ music, mainly because there are not many great organs in the country to inspire composers. In the early 18th century the Eastern Orthodox Church instructed that musical instruments were to be destroyed and burned, and this included church organs.  In the early 1860s when formal music conservatories were established in the country, Anton Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai decided that if the Church was going to eschew the use of the organ in spiritual life, then it was up to them to build organs in schools and show the children of Russia how to use them.  From the late 1860s onward, instruction in organ playing formed part of the musical curriculum in Russia.

Alexander Glazunov was born in 1865 into the family of a well–known Petersburg book publisher.  Gifted with an exceptional ear and musical memory, he began to study the piano at the age of 9 and to compose at the age of 11.  He became a Professor at the Conservatoire of St Petersburg in 1899, and the years of his Directorship (1905 - 1928), are still remembered as one of the most bright and efficient in its history.  In the office of Director, Glazunov did not compose much, doing all he could to ensure that the Conservatoire functioned properly.  The peak of his composing career had been reached in the late 19th and early 20th century.  He went abroad in 1907 and received the honorary DMus from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. While in London he spent a considerable time at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, studying their curricula.  He died in 1936 after a long and painful illness in Paris, where he stayed from 1928 ‘on leave’ from the Conservatoire.  He was a close friend of Rimsky–Korsakov and a great admirer of Tchaikovsky and Borodin.  His compositions seemed obsolete to young contemporaries like Prokofiev and Shostakovich and his composing style looked eclectic, as he absorbed nearly all of the best things in Russian music of that period.

The Fantasia in G minor, Op. 110, was Glazunov’s last composition, completed in April 1935 and dedicated to the famous French organist Marcel Dupré (1886–1971) who was Glazunov’s consultant during his work on the Fantasia, and also gave the first performance.  The dedication reads: “To the great musician, virtuoso maître Marcel Dupré, as a memory of our meetings ‘chez lui et chez moi’, and at the Cathedral St Sulpice.”   The full version of this piece is over 16 minutes in length, so an abridged version will be performed this evening.  The Fantasia is based on a 6 note motif which is heard at the very beginning of the work, and is then used extensively in different textures and keys. Soon, another chorale type theme is introduced and this appears regularly throughout the first section of the Fantasia.  The closing section is a fugue where the fugal subject is derived from the opening motif, and is frequently juxtaposed with a chordal version of the same theme. As the fugue builds to a climax, this chordal version becomes far more prominent and is then combined with the earlier chorale, reappearing over a very florid pedal part which brings the piece to a triumphant conclusion. 

The Prelude and Fugue in D major dates from 1906 and is dedicated to Jacque Samuel Handschin (1886–1955), a Swiss music expert and organist who was born in Moscow and spent many years in Russia. Handschin studied the organ with Widor, and from 1909 – 1920 he headed the organ class of St. Petersburg Conservatoire.  The relatively short Prelude skilfully combines homophonic and polyphonic writing and the fugue, a more substantial section, is based on largely scalic themes which receive skilful treatment, meandering through a variety of keys and building in intensity until a somewhat surprising diminuendo brings the work to a very peaceful end.

© Nigel Nash 2007

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