The Vigil was composed very early in 1915. The text is written in Old Church Slavonic, which remains the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no reason why the piece should not be performed during a service, except that its technical difficulty places it beyond the scope of all but the most able choirs. The University of Sheffield Chamber Choir have taken on the challenge of singing this substantial work in it's original language.
Rachmaninoff was not a practicing Christian but held in high regard the poetry, music and traditions of the Orthodox Church. In his choral music he seems to reject the German and Italian musical influences of the previous two centuries and, following the lead set by Tchaikovsky in his 1882 Vespers, uses for inspiration the early Russian Church’s traditional chants. The entire piece appears to be based on authentic Orthodox chants, but in only nine of the fifteen movements are these genuine; in the other movements Rachmaninoff created his own chant-like melodies, and these he described as ‘conscious counterfeits’. Rachmaninoff’s immensely varied and imaginative vocal scoring, much of it for at least eight parts, is one of the most striking features of the Vigil, and has aptly been described as ‘choral orchestration’. Yet, because his melodic lines grow out of Orthodox chants they conjunct with small melodic intervals, and despite the grand scale of the work as a whole this imparts a very personal and intimate dimension to the music.
From the outset The All Night Vigil was recognised as a masterpiece of choral writing, and one of the pinnacles of Russian Orthodox Church music.
After the first performance Rachmaninoff himself commented, ‘Even in my dreams I could not have imagined that I would write such a work’, and it has been our privilege to celebrate the centenary of his achievement this year. This this the penultimate concert in the Chamber Choir's diary this academic year and it's not to be missed.
Please do come and celebrate this masterwork with us on April 19th.
Mark McCombs, April 2015