Rachmaninoff: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

NEW: previews of this weekend’s concerts:
Crosscut by Thomas May
“the group’s brand of meditative sacred music from the Orthodox tradition is just what the doctor ordered.”

The Sun Break by Michael van Baker
“their performances of last season’s Vespers (also by Rachmaninoff) sold out, so you may want tickets in advance.”

Before the Rachmaninoff Divine Liturgy concerts this weekend, take a look through the program notes written by Cappella Romana artistic director Alexander Lingas:

The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op. 31 (1910)

The Divine Liturgy bearing the name of St John Chrysostom (d. 407) is the form of the Eucharist celebrated most frequently in the modern Byzantine rite. Like the communion services of most other Christian traditions, it features two large sections: a service of the Word that climaxes with readings from the New Testament and concludes with the dismissal of those preparing for baptism (the catechumens); and a service of the already initiated Faithful during which the Gifts of Bread and Wine are brought to the altar and offered in a great prayer of thanksgiving (the Eucharistic Prayer or anaphora) before being distributed as the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. In common with the Roman mass, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy also contains both invariable (ordinary) and variable (proper) chants.

Choral settings of the Divine Liturgy—notionally ‘complete’ but in reality consisting mainly of selected hymns from its ordinary—were pioneered in Baroque Ukraine and Russia. The emergence of the Divine Liturgy as compositional genre comparable in scale to Latin Masses or Anglican Services may thus be dated more securely to the publication in 1878 of Peter Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, op. 41 (1878). Other composers were initially reluctant to imitate this landmark choral work, but during the first decade of the twentieth century the list of Russian musicians who had composed settings of the Divine Liturgy rapidly grew, including impressive works by Alexander Arkhangelsky, Alexander Gretchaninoff and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. This was part of a broader expansion of Russian Orthodoxy’s choral repertory that was facilitated by substantial institutional support for liturgical music in both St Petersburg and Moscow. The Moscow Synodal School of Church Singing was particularly important in this regard, maintaining a superb choir of men and boys, offering a comprehensive training curriculum for church musicians, and promoting research into the ancient chant traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) had forged ties with the Moscow Synodal School whilst he was still a student, writing a Sacred Concerto for unaccompanied chorus—‘The Mother of God Ever-Vigilant in Prayer’, an elaborate setting of the kontakion for the Dormition of the Virgin Mary—that was premiered in 1893 by its choir. He had evidently maintained these links, for when Rachmaninoff began to write music for the Divine Liturgy in 1910 he repeatedly turned to Alexander Kastalsky, at that time Director of the Synodal School, for detailed advice on the finer points of liturgical composition. This correspondence with Kastalsky makes clear the seriousness with which Rachmaninoff approached the task, showing him to have devoted substantial effort to understanding the order of the service and assimilating relevant musical precedents (especially Tchaikovksy’s Liturgy). Rachmaninoff great satisfaction with the resulting Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, op. 31:

I have long thought about the Liturgy and have long strived towards it. I happened to undertake it somewhat by chance and immediately got carried away. And then finished it very quickly. Not for a long time…have I written something with such pleasure. (Letter to Nikita Morozov)
Unlike his later All-Night Vigil, op. 37 (1915), Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy does not directly quote traditional chants, but instead is constructed of original melodic material. Nevertheless, the setting is generally consonant with the chant-based aesthetics of his contemporaries associated with the Moscow Synodal School, containing many chant-like melodies and at times displaying the parallel forms of part-writing characteristic of Russian composers inspired by indigenous sacred and folk musical traditions. His approach to the setting of the liturgical text is likewise careful and for the most part respected contemporary norms in Russian Orthodox Church music.

The knowledgeable listener, however, may occasionally discern unusual features, most obviously in the unexpected brevity or (more often) length of some movements. Examples of the latter are the response ‘Mercy, peace, a sacrifice of praise’ from the Eucharistic Prayer and the post-communion hymn ‘Let our mouth be filled’, both of which seem unusually long given their liturgical context and function. The Liturgy also features a broad range of vocal textures (including two movements for double choir: the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer) and some bold harmonic turns (for example, toward the end of the Creed). Vladimir Morosan is among the commentators to attribute these idiosyncrasies to a rather personal approach in composing music for the Divine Liturgy, placing at least portions of this work on the subjective end of compositions for Russian Orthodox worship. This appears to be the basis for the mixed reviews offered by a few critics who attended performances of Opus 31 in Moscow and St Petersburg given prior to the start of World War I. Today, however, this work has emerged after decades of neglect to be recognised as a cornerstone of the repertory of Russian Orthodox liturgical music.

—Alexander Lingas

Purchase Tickets Today

8pm, Fri., Jan. 11, St. Mary’s Cathedral
8pm, Sat., Jan. 12, Holy Rosary Church, West Seattle
Portland (matinée)
3pm, Sun., Jan. 13, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Free pre-concert talks one hour prior to each performance.