Rach Vespers Image

Rachmaninov: Vespers
John Tavener: Song for Athene;
The Lament for the Mother of God

Saturday 22 March 2014
Bristol Cathedral

Vivian Yau - Soprano
Mark Hounsell - Tenor
Christopher Finch - Conductor
Nigel Nash - Organ

Programme Order

Click on a composer's name to see details

John Tavener Song for Athene
  The Lament of the Mother of God - (Vivian Yau, Soprano solo)
Sergei Rachmaninov All-night Vigil (Vespers) Opus 37 - (Mark Hounsell, Tenor solo)

Programme Notes

John Tavener (1944 - 2013)

In November last year, the musical world mourned the passing of one of its most respected and visionary composers. Born in London in 1944, and educated in the same class at Highgate School as John Rutter, John Tavener progressed to study at the Royal Academy of Music under the tutelage of Lennox Berkeley. Tavener first came to the attention of the wider public in 1968 with his avant-garde oratorio The Whale, which received its premiere at the inaugural concert of the London Sinfonietta. This work gained many important advocates, amongst them the Beatles, who supported, financed and released a recording of this oratorio on their Apple record label. Tavener's music is characterised by its transcendental beauty, which is achieved through a distinctive compositional style that has been coined 'holy minimalism'. The relationship between music, beauty and the divine forms the centre of Tavener's own philosophy, both in relation to music and religion. Speaking to the Morning Edition in 1999, Tavener explained:

"We seem to have lost our contact with the primordial, the idea of call it divine revelation as opposed to something that's learned by the human intellect, something that, if you lay yourself completely open and you just open your heart completely, something will actually come into it."

During many visits to Greece in the 1970s, Tavener developed a fascination with the Orthodox faith that led to his formal conversion in 1977. The aesthetic of the Orthodox Church would inspire his composition for the following 20 years. He would often describe his works from this period as "icons in sound," drawing upon the Orthodox tradition of utilizing religious images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints as a portal into the divine.

During this period, Tavener largely cut himself off from the contemporary music scene, withdrawing into himself and his faith in the hope of producing music worthy of his divine calling. In an interview with the BBC, he described the difference between Western and Eastern music:

"This [Eastern music] is music which both excites me musically and also leads me somewhere, takes me somewhere. So much Western music is created in this world and leaves you in this world. The music of the East is perhaps written not so much with the world in mind, and it certainly takes you somewhere else."

Tavener: Song for Athene

Tavener's Song for Athene, sets a text by Mother Thekla, a Russian Orthodox abbess, Cambridge University graduate and Tavener's spiritual guide. Written in 1993 to commemorate the death of a young friend named Athene Hariades, Song for Athene was later performed by the choir of Westminster Abbey at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. This spiritual and timeless music resonated profoundly with the vast worldwide television audience providing a soundtrack to commemorate their grief.

Tavener: The Lament of the Mother of God (Vivian Yau, Soprano solo)

The Lament of the Mother of God was commissioned by the Norwich Festival of Contemporary Church Music in 1989, and is scored for Soprano solo and 8-part choir. In the Orthodox Church, the Lament of the Mother of God is sung on Holy and Great Friday. At its full length it lasts about half an hour, and is intoned by the priest or bishop while the people venerate the florally decorated Epitaphios (or Shroud of the Dead Christ). The Orthodox Church does not share the absolute desolation felt by the Western Church on Good Friday. In this text of raw emotion and human sorrow, the extreme sorrow and pain that Mary experienced at the foot of the cross resolves in hope, as she considers the sacrificial love and the ultimate victory that awaits

"A sword pierces my heart, but does Thou change my grief to gladness by Thy resurrection".

It is this profound musical expression of the hope found in the Resurrection that unites this evening's programme, and is given life and beauty by the genius of Tavener and Rachmaninov.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
A short history of music in the Russian Orthodox Church

Before listening to Rachmaninov's musical mastery, it is helpful to understand the importance of the Orthodox belief in earthly worship as an imitation of heavenly praise. The fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, wrote:

"Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus."

In this Christian tradition, God and beauty are interrelated. The chants of the ancient church are thought to be divinely inspired; they are viewed as celestial creations that serve as the foundation for all creativity. The composers and performers of music for liturgy were therefore required to eschew all earthly pride and self-expression in supplication to the divine. The imitation of heavenly beauty found in the music, was matched equally by the grandeur of the architecture and the magnificence of the icons.

From its inception, liturgical singing in Russia embraced three principles fundamental to Eastern Christian worship: it was an essential rather than an optional element of the service; it was exclusively vocal, allowing no musical instruments; and it was performed in the people's native language.

Until the late sixteenth century, the music of the Orthodox Church was almost entirely unison chant, notated in neumes called znamena - hence the adoption of the term 'Znamenny Chant'. Singers educated in cathedral schools were trained in the embellishment of these simple chants, and created elaborate patterns that revealed a deep emotional expression of the text.

Influenced by the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, a new style of polyphonic music emerged in the South, and was adopted into the Orthodox liturgy by clergy who feared their congregations might be enticed away by the elaborate 'high' music of the Roman Church.

Under the patronage of Lay Brotherhoods, Russian composers created a vast repertoire of new compositions that adhered to modern aesthetic principles.

In the North, it was also at this time that the Znamenny chants began to be superseded by simpler chants such as the Greek and Kiev Chants. The Reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725) and the move of the Russian capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, witnessed a further diminishing of Russia's own national cultural identity, as the Emperor encouraged the adoption of western European style in all art forms.

Only in the nineteenth-century did interest in the ancient and traditional build. However, the establishment of a truly nationalistic music style in Russia during the middle of the century (as epitomised by the compositions of the 'Mighty Five') had only limited influence on sacred music.

It was the establishment of the 'Moscow Synodal School' in the latter part of the century, which provided the catalyst for the liberation of Russian liturgical music from foreign influence. The Directors of the School encouraged a return to the indigenous Russian chants and their use as the inspiration for the composition of new church music. The period between 1880 and 1917 witnessed the creation of a vast literature of Russian masterpieces including works by luminaries such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Chesnokov and Grechaninov.

Rachmaninov: All-night Vigil (Vespers) Opus 37 (Mark Hounsell, Tenor solo)

Sergei Rachmaninov had a tempestuous relationship with the Orthodox Church, who objected to his proposal to marry his first cousin. Yet despite this, he was deeply moved and inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church's music. He was to comment "I took less interest in God and religious worship than in the singing, which was of unrivalled beauty".

Rachmaninov's studies at the Moscow Conservatoire included a class in church music with Smolensky, the director of the Russian Synodal School. The ancient chants of the Orthodox Church provided a seminal influence on much of his future composition, not only his three great choral masterpieces (The Bells, Liturgy of St. Chrysostom and All-night Vigil) but also on his symphonic compositions.

Rachmaninov composed only one song during the summer of 1914, instead contributing to the war relief fund by performing in a series of concerts throughout Russia. The All-night Vigil of 1915 was Rachmaninov's last major composition before his emigration to the USA in 1917. Composed during just two weeks of February 1915, the timeless beauty of the All-night Vigil is considered to be the crowning glory of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some have surmised that, given its historical context in 1915, this work is Rachmaninov's response to the brutal violence and injustice of war throughout Europe, and specifically the turmoil in his native country which led to the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the atheist and antireligious Soviet state.

In an era of radical music development, as epitomised by Schoenberg and Webern, Rachmaninov's work can be considered both conservative and quintessentially Russian. In the All-night Vigil he took his inspiration for nine of the fifteen sections from the three central chant forms of the Russian church: the original Znamenny chant of Byzantine derivation, the 'Greek' chant that had probably arrived in Moscow in the seventeenth century, and the Kiev chant which may have originated as a variant of Znamenny from the Ukraine. The remaining six movements were composed using original melodies that are so reminiscent of the ancient chants that Rachmaninov described them as 'conscious counterfeits'.

The English title Vespers is something of a misnomer: The Russian title Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye refers to an Orthodox Resurrection vigil service held on the eve of the Sunday Eucharist (i.e. on Saturday evening). It is a liturgical practice that continues to this day and when said in its entirety in monasteries lasts literally throughout the whole night. It is in essence a combination of three tradition services; Vespers, Matins, and First Hour.

For his setting, Rachmaninov chose fifteen psalms and canticles from the ordinaries of this great liturgy. In the opening Vesperal section, held in the fading light of the day, the texts focus on the Creation, the fall of Man and the anticipation of the Saviour's coming. The Matins and First Hour section, held in the first light of a new day and in great anticipation of the Eucharistic Feast, look with renewed joy, wonder and optimism to Christ's Resurrection.

Prior to its first performance, Rachmaninov took the complete score to his friend Nikolay Danilin who was to conduct the first performance with the Moscow Synodal Choir on 10 March 1915. Rachmaninov described the Vespers with warmth and pride:

"My favourite number in the work, which I love as I do The Bells, is the fifth canticle, 'Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace'. I should like this sung at my funeral. Towards the end there is a passage sung by the basses - a scale descending to the lowest B-flat in a very slow pianissimo. After I played this passage Danilin shook his head, saying, "Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!" Nevertheless, he did find them. I know the voices of my countrymen, and I well knew what demands I could make on Russian basses!"

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