Orthodox Christian



The Meaning of the Rachmaninov Vespers

  Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther


Vespers, the evening prayer service of the Orthodox Church, is the reason for Rachmaninov’s greatest achievement.  True, the music is not the All Night Vigil Service (as the Russians call it) word for word, and the music is more symphonic than one would expect to hear in a church service.  But there are many passages in which the traditional melodies of the Russian Orthodox Church may be heard; and the composer instances those for Gladsome Radiance (Melody of the Kiev Tradition); Nunc Dimittis (the same); Glory Be to God, Laud ye the Name of the Lord; Blessed art Thou, O Lord; Gloria in Excelsis; the two Hymns ‘Today Hath Salvation Come’ and ‘When Thou, O Lord, Hadst Arisen’ (all Melody of the Znamen Tradition); with finally Hymn to the Mother of God (Melody of the Greek Tradition).  Out of 15 pieces, 9 deliberately evoke comparison with their original sources; and the last piece looks lovingly towards the mother tradition of the Russians – Greek Orthodoxy. 

Rachmaninov wrote this music in 1916, when the future of Russia was about to become a prolonged, dehumanizing catastrophe, through the Revolution which Nicholas II and Alexandra by their appalling policies had made inevitable. Even Nicholas’ abdication was the result of his incompetence.  But there is in Russian history, and in the heart of all Russians, a depth of sorrowful love, which receives catastrophe as a kind of revelation.  At least, this is the general argument of Nicholas Berdyaev, one of Russian Orthodoxy’s greatest writers and advocates.  As he says:

The mystery always remains; it is deepened by our knowledge.  Knowledge destroys only false mysteries created by our own ignorance, but there are other mysteries which confront us when we reach the depth of knowledge.  God is a mystery, and the knowledge of God is communicated in mystery (Apophatic Theology).  Rational theology is false theology, for it denies the mystery that surrounds God.

All of this Berdyaev and the other Russians of the Emigration came to understand through the Revolution of 1917.

To think of Rachmaninov, who was a believing Russian Orthodox, picking up the trend of events and yearning by his music for a resolution of conflict through prayer, is inevitable.  He gives to his bass line passages which Russian basses find normal.  He gives to all the voices new levels of aspiration and new ways of reaching them.  Yet because Rachmaninov writes with the knowledge of his tradition and with an apprehension that Russia will soon be destroyed, his use of the traditional melodies opens them up to other minds and gives them to a wider world.  Those who value his symphonies for their romantic power, or who have ever suffered the intense tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s 4th , 5th and 6th symphonies will find all that here.  But there is more.

As  A.V. Kartashev said,

The Russians desire to sanctify the world around them, to bring everything nearer to God; hence their emphasis on the importance of ritual and customs (obryad). They are determined to connect every side of their daily life with the Church.  The decoration of their churches bears witness to this.  Russians do not like to see bare stones inside their temples, so they cover the walls and ceilings with sacred pictures.  They want to unite heaven and earth.

 And as S.N. Bulgakov said,

Orthodoxy is first of all the love of beauty.  Our entire life must be inspired by the vision of heavenly glory, and this contemplation is the essence of Orthodoxy…. Russian asceticism aims at manifesting God’s Kingdom on earth.  It does not deny this world, but embraces it.

This emphatic principle is clearly present in the Vespers.  Rachmaninov’s Vespers are so accessible to non-Orthodox or Western audiences because his use of the tradition – cultural, theological, musical – is meant to be accessible.  (Who would not have wanted to communicate on the edge of the abyss in 1916?)  Seldom are the Vespers able to be performed in Britain in an Orthodox setting.  This church provides that setting; and though its habitual music is not Russian and its decoration is Greek rather than Russian, the general situation is perfectly correct; and all the more so for a performance where the translation is in English.  The Orthodox Church stands in the market place of the West and bears witness to its tradition with one purpose: to pray in the faith that God lives and has conquered death.

So many of the elements of this service – this music! – are to do with that relationship.  And another central element is prayer to Our Lady, the Birthgiver of God, Mary.  To quote Bulgakov again:

Holiness is the goal and essence of the Church’s life. The holiness of the manhood of Christ is actualised in the Communion of the Saints; but we cannot separate the humanity of our Lord from that of His Mother… She is joined with all the saints and angels.  Others may not yet feel drawn…. to call on her name in prayer.  Yet, as together, we approach nearer doctrinal reunion it may be that we are coming closer to each other even in this regard.

And to quote S.L. Frank:

The process of transfiguration, of illumination and deification of the world and of human souls is achieved through suffering, for suffering is the sign of the imperfection of this world, and at the same time it is the indispensable weapon with which to overcome this imperfection.  The victory of goodness over chaos can only be achieved through suffering.

It is not for us, who have known nothing of the horrors of the Russian Revolution and its cruel sequel to guess what these statements could have meant in those 70 years when the Church was suppressed and Christians were martyred in great numbers. But those statements were undoubtedly lived.  The martyrs were the true icons of their faith.   The sustaining power of prayer, the power which Rachmaninov expresses in his writing, was honoured and given as a picture to millions.  Something of this will always break into the heart of the listener to this work.


Reference, The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century, N. Zernov, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1963


 © Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther, SS. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Croydon, London 2003


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