Rachmaninov Vespers

Rachmaninov Vespers concert in Canterbury Cathedral on Saturday 23 June 2012

Anna Starushkevych: mezzo-soprano, David Lee: tenor, Camilla Pay: harp, Richard Cooke: conductor

Programme Note

Nocturne – Mikhail Glinka
The earliest Russian Romantic repertoire of note for harp was by Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857), who in turn influenced subsequent composers of his country such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. He was the first composer noted for forging a truly Russian musical language, influenced by folk melodies and having ‘Russian’ recitative in his operas. Although Glinka wrote a few chamber works including harp, the Nocturne, published in 1828, is one of only two solos which he wrote for the instrument. It has a lyrical and Romanticsounding melody, although the textures owe more to the Classical period in style.

Impromptu – Reinhold Glière
Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956) studied at the Moscow Conservatoire with Ippolitov-Ivanov and others. His life took him to Berlin for two years, where he became Director of the Kiev Conservatoire. Subsequently, he was on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatoire for over twenty years. In addition to his work as a composer, he was a conductor and collector of folk melodies, continuing on the practices of the Russian Nationalist School initiated by Glinka. His students numbered Prokofiev and Miaskovsky and he won two Stalin prizes for his compositions.

All-Night Vigil – Rachmaninov
Rachmaninov’s All Night-Vigil is unmistakably Russian. The distinctive qualities of a nation’s music are determined, not only by its language, but also by a variety of other factors. Music a thousand years ago consisted of single melodic lines; not only folk music, which for long retained this nature, but also music for worship. The latter took the form in Western Europe of Gregorian Chant, and in Eastern Europe variants of Byzantine chants. Such music was to depend not only for its survival, but also for any more complex development, on the creation of musical notation, a task which naturally fell to the scholarly class of the age, the monks, and the earliest known examples of such of notation date from the ninth century. The Russian ‘Znamennïy’ chants used a simple notation with arrows pointing up and down, while in Western Europe a variety of symbols (neumes) appeared. Polyphony, the simultaneous singing of two or more melodic lines, sometimes to different texts, had appeared by the tenth century, and quickly developed into more complex structures.

One factor of particular influence on the growth of Russian music, however, was that the Orthodox Church forbade the use of instruments in the liturgy (with the exception of bells). This discouraged the development of more complex forms since to learn them required some sort of instrumental support, and as a result the monks used a simpler style in which voices sang the same words in the same rhythm albeit to differing notes (homophony). This manner of singing, together with the natural deep quality of the Eastern European bass voices, gave rise to the resonant sound which today we regard as particularly Russian.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries music spread to Russia from the West, Italy in particular, and new forms of chant were created. Such music was felt to be a foreign imposition and real change did not come until the nineteenth century with the arrival of Glinka, the ‘Five’ (or the ‘Mighty Handful’: Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui) and Tchaikovsky, who composed in the western classical manner but introduced elements of Russian folk music thereby creating for the first time a real Russian national style. Tchaikovsky had himself composed a setting of the Vespers in 1882 and had written “I have preserved intact some of those genuine church chants, in some cases I took the liberty of deviating a little, in some others I deviated quite a lot following my own musical feeling.” Rachmaninov was very much in the main stream of western classical music. He was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky and found himself likewise drawn to his country’s roots. He composed his Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom in 1910 but felt he had not sufficiently absorbed the style and spirit of the ancient chants, and it was not until five years later that he composed his All Night-Vigil.

Though often referred to as his Vespers this is a misnomer; the first six movements constitute the liturgy of the Vespers and the remaining nine, after midnight, that of Matins. He set ancient texts, Byzantine hymns and biblical verses using the old Znamennïy chants, later Russian and eastern European chants from the seventeenth century and some of his own composing. He achieved a traditional atmosphere by using only unaccompanied voices, making contrasting use of varying sections of the choir and introducing later techniques such as polyphony as well as the use of two solo voices. Such are the demands made on the performers, however, that it has found its place more often in the concert hall than in a liturgical setting.