Composers Datebook®

with host John Zech

Monday, March 10

Rachmaninoff's Vespers

Synopsis

On today's date in 1915, the Moscow Synodal Choir gave the premiere performance of a new choral work by Sergei Rachmaninoff. In Russian, the work was titled Vsenoshchnoe bdeniye, which translates as "All-Night Vigil Service" or more commonly as "Vespers."

This was Rachmaninoff's take on traditional liturgical melodies of the Easter Orthodox church. Rachmaninoff himself was not particularly religious, but by 1915, all Russians, religious or not, perhaps found solace in such music as the staggering casualties of the Russian Imperial troops during World War I became apparent.
Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" was warmly received in Moscow and repeated five times within a month of its premiere. But in 1917, the Bolshevik revolution transformed Imperial Russia into a non-religious Soviet state. Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" remained pretty much forgotten until 1965, when Alexander Sveshnikov made the first recording of the work with the USSR State Academic Russian Choir for the Soviet record label Melodiya.

Ironically, that Melodiya LP was never available for sale within the USSR, and was only issued as an export item to the West. It quickly became a best-seller, and Western audiences were astonished by both the emotional power of the work and the low bass voices required to perform it.

Even by Russian standards, the bass parts are VERY low. When shown the manuscript score back in 1915, the work's original conductor shook his head, and said, "Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!"

Music Played in Today's Program

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 - 1943) Vespers (All-Nght Vigil), Op. 37 USSR State Academic Russian Choir; Alexander Sveshnikov, cond. Pipeline Music custom CD (from Amazon.com)

Additional Information

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