WDR Rundfunkchor and Nicolas Fink, Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil

Rachmaninoff's manuscript for  All-Night Vigil  (aka  Vespers )

Rachmaninoff's manuscript for All-Night Vigil (aka Vespers)

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil

The image of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is one that has been subject to several challenges of preconceived notions. Classic FM, for example, notes that he was both known as the “six-foot scowl” and a composer who was “deeply religious,” as evidenced by his liturgical works.

Other sources, however, question this characterization. “He is no tragic figure, no gloomy-natured exile, embittered by his experiences,” wrote Elizabeth O. Toombs in a 1922 article for Good Housekeeping, “but a soul radiating gentleness and power, tinged with a quizzical humor.”

Likewise, in his bio-bibliography of the Russian composer, Robert Cunningham notes that there is very little evidence that Rachmaninoff had any special connection to religion — in fact, his marriage to his first cousin Natalia Satina, was forbidden by the Russian Orthodox church. Cunningham argues that the “contention that the composer must have been deeply religious seems to be based primarily on the indisputable beauty of his liturgical works, rather than concrete biographical data.”

This week, we’ve looked at works that challenge expectations and preconceptions. We’ve also looked at faith as a mix of doubt and hope. Rachmaninoff was a composer who came at the end of the Romantic era and therefore felt “like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien” when the musical trends shifted toward modernism. Similarly, he was forced out of his homeland following the Bolshevik Revolution — a revolution which also temporarily quashed his 1915 work, All-Night Vigil (also referred to as the Vespers).  

So despite Rachmaninoff’s religious ambivalence, can we sense some sort of home in the All-Night Vigil? While he was perhaps not deeply religious, Rachmaninoff was especially fond of this liturgical composition, and even requested that the Fifth Canticle would be played at his funeral. If this is not rooted in a church-bound faith, perhaps we can see the other layers of faith that sit at the core of any codified religion. Writing this on Easter Sunday and in the early days of Passover (not to mention Rachmaninoff's birthday), it’s especially clear today that we don’t all speak the same dogma, but we can speak the same basic language of hope. To put it more concisely, perhaps we don’t all think the same, but we can at least all (at times) feel the same.

“The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel,” Rachmaninoff said of the wave of modernism that came after the Romantic era. While Rachmaninoff’s thoughts may not have always turned toward the ecclesiastical, we can hear something of his feelings in the All-Night Vigil.

Perhaps, too, as an added twist of fate, this work is one written without metronomic indications, meaning that the composer did not leave a strict tempo. Conductors, therefore, have to go on faith.

Today’s Contemplation: What do you hold to be true, self-evident? Consider these truths as they pass through your mind. Picking one, can you become more inquisitive with the truth and find the feeling tone beneath the rhetoric? What faith sites at the core of that belief? What doubt mixes in with it? And can you imagine how those same seeds manifest in manifold ways in other people in your life? In a world where it seems dangerous to go on faith versus fact (not the alternative kind), how might we bring the two back to a sense of equilibrium?