Irina Walters talk Rachmaninov June 2018

Rachmaninov and Vespers

In preparation for the concert on June 16, 2018 of Rachmaninov Vespers

Irina Walters

Good evening, everyone. Have you enjoyed listening to the 1st half of Vespers? I love Rachmaninov and can tell you many stories about him. Have you got time?

Rachmaninov composed Vespers in 1915. Let us briefly look at the historical, political and personal situation that Rachmaninov found himself in:

Rachmaninov was born 145 years ago, in 1873. He studied piano in Moscow Conservatory under Zverev and composition under Taneev, famous for his lessons in counterpoint. To succeed in those counterpoint lessons one must write lots and lots of exercises, where a melody is given and a student needs to write the rest. Rachmaninov hated those exercises and found all sorts of excuses to avoid them. So his teacher thought of a plan: he would send a servant to Rachmaninov’s house with a bunch of melodies, asking the servant to stay waiting until Rachmaninov completes the task.

In Russia the best mark that one can receive is a 5. When Rachmaninov had his final exam in composition, Tchaikovsky was the head of the jury. He gave Rachmaninov the top mark, 5, surrounded by 4 pluses on each of the sides.

In 1897 his 1st symphony was performed, unsuccessfully. The conductor Glazunov was drunk, R did not recognise some parts of the music and could not bear getting into the concert hall, hid on the staircase instead. A period of depression followed up until his 2nd Piano Concerto emerged in 1901, dedicated to a psychiatrist Dr Dall, who helped Rachmaninov.

1905- Russian revolution

1914 – 1st World War

1917 – Bolshevik revolution and Rachmaninov’s immigration

In the middle of all of this the composer writes his Vespers – “All Night Vigil” if we translate it exactly, which is divided into two parts, the one that you have just heard – the evening Vespers and the remaining parts – the morning Matins with number 15 being “From the 1st Hour”. Along with the Bells this was one of two favourite compositions by Rachmaninov, who requested, that number 5 Nunc Dimittis (Nine otpushaeshi with tenor solo), to be performed at his funeral.

You would not believe it: it takes choirs months to study the piece but it took the composer less than 2 weeks to write the entire piece. 10 out of 15 numbers were based on different types of chants: znamenny, Greek and Kiev chants, while the remaining 5 were so influenced by them that it was almost impossible to feel the difference.

The piece is dedicated to Stepan Smolensky who studied znamenny chant, was the director of the Synod choir and the Synodal school. When I studied at the Conservatory in Moscow, our choir often performed at the Rachmaninov hall which is the hall that remained from the synod choir. It had a phenomenal acoustic. We often performed singing from the balcony looking down at the audience. The balconies had lots of vases placed in them. Some years ago they decided to do a renovation and all of a sudden all the acoustic was gone. This is when they realised that the vases contributed to the acoustics, and put everything back to how it was. So this was the Synodal hall.

First performance of Vespers took place on March 10, 1915, partially to benefit the Russian war effort. It was followed by 5 more performances in March of the same year. But with the onset of the 1917 revolution all the religious music was forbidden and this music was not performed for decades.

When I studied in 1980s and 1990s, choirs started performing Vespers, singing some sections at first, and then the entire piece. The score that I use was published in 1989. It said that it was the 1st publication since 1922.

When I was listening to numerous recordings of it on Youtube I came across the recording of Alexander Sveshnikov choir, made in 1965, which in my opinion, was the best. 1965? How could that be when the performances were forbidden until 1980s? I will tell you the continuation of the story during the next break. Let’s listen to some gorgeous music now.




So the recording of 1965. I then did some investigation, where I read that they recorded the piece through the Russian company Melodiya but for an American market. They recorded it secretly, at night, at the big Hall of Moscow Conservatory, all the traffic for miles around was stopped; it all seems unbelievable now…

One image that goes through many compositions by Rachmaninov is the image of the bells, so typical for the Russian Orthodox church. For many years he has been associated with the Prelude in C sharp minor, the so called ‘Bells of Moscow’ and, whenever he appeared at the concerts, the audiences won’t let him go without playing it as an encore.

His piece Vespers has the image of bells going throughout the piece.

Young Seryozha Rachmaninov got used to Russian church singing while in Novgorod, with his grandmother. There were practically more churches at the time than houses. Right in the centre of the town of Novgorod, in Kremlin, there is still the eldest Russian Orthodox cathedral, Sophia’s Cathedral. It was here that he listened to his first church service, admiring the church bells after the service. Bells became one of the symbols of Rachmaninov’s music.

Many years later he will write music to 2 services: Liturgy and Vespers.

The piece is composed for four-part choir with many divisi up to 11 parts, including part of basso profundo. Part of basso profundo goes down to a B flat 3 octaves below middle C. Basso profundo gentlemen are the real heroes of this piece. I am going to ask them to waive at the audience, so you can then pay closer attention to them. Apparently when Rachmaninov played this part first to the choir director, the comment was: “Where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!”

People often wonder: what is it that leads to the abundance of low notes in Russian repertoire, is it the nature, the Russian soul, or do they take something special for it? There are many stories linked to it. Such as this anecdote: there is a line of basses auditioning for a place in the Russian choir. The conductor asks the 1st bass in the line: “Do you drink?” – Yes, I have to confess. – Oh, this is really bad. So this bass says to the other – whatever you do, do not say that you drink. – Do you drink? The conductor asks the second bass. – Me, never! – So how can you sing then?

I think the truth to the abundance of low notes in the Russian repertoire lies in the fact that it is part of the tradition, so one simply has more chances of singing it.

Rachmaninov immigrated in 1917, after the revolution. He lived abroad for 26 years, during which he composed only 6 opuses. When living in Switzerland, he called his estate SENAR (Sergei, Natalia Rachmaninov). Later he settled in the US, where he was known as a pianist, conductor and composer.

He had very large hands. The photographers were always following him, trying to get some pictures. Once, trying to escape from them, he covered his face with his large hands. Immediately a photo was taken, with a comment that this is exactly what they were after: the hands!

Here are a couple of other funny facts. He loved very expensive cars but hated dealing with spare parts if anything went wrong. So the minute the car needed some repair he would just sell it and get another one. He needed glasses but he never wore them when he was driving, which absolutely petrified the passengers in his cars, as he loved driving fast. He gave his last concert 6 weeks before his death in 1943 in the USA, from cancer.

Listening to Rachmaninov’s Vespers one can hear all the features so typical for this composer: a gorgeous melody, intense and intimate emotions, love and pure admiration for Russian culture and Russian soul.

Let us listen to the final sections of his Vespers and enjoy the beauty of this music. Thank you.

Back to concert post.



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