Composed in less than two weeks in January and February 1915, Rachmaninov’s work is a culmination of the preceding two decades of interest in Russian sacred music, as initiated by Tchaikovsky’s setting of the all-night vigil.
It has been praised as Rachmaninoff’s finest achievement and “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church”; the composer requested that one of its movements (the fifth) be sung at his funeral.
Often considered to be the greatest piece of religious music, as well as greatest piece of music…period…in history. The reason is because this is, as I like to think of it, a “Bach’s greatest hits compilation album”. Throughout his career as being an organist and church composers for churches around Northern Germany, he had written hundreds of cantatas. During his most established position as the organist at St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Bach had taken different arias, duos, and trios from different cantatas and mixed them together with new music to write a setting of the Latin Mass, an unusual move for a Protestant composer and scholars aren’t sure what Bach’s exact motive was. No matter the reason, the result is, and yes I don’t care I’m about to use a cliche, heavenly. This is the music of the otherworldly and spiritual, where mathematic precision and religious meditation/philosophy come together to create a profound mountaintop of human achievement. The entirety of the mass is spectacular, but I will take the time to highlight my favorite moments in the work under each “movement” of the mass. Also interesting to note, each movement was filed in its own folder, implying that they could be played independently instead of performing the work in its entirety. I’m sure J.S. Bach would be pleasantly surprised that we insist upon showcasing the entire mass. I’m sharing my favorite performance of the work, Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields…the power of the organ, the brightness of the instruments…it doesn’t matter if your religious or not, or even Christian or not…this is music of the human spirit at its best.
Movements [notable sections in italics underneath]
I. Kyrie et Gloria [“Missa”]
Kyrie eleison 1 [0:00]
Kyrie eleison 2 [15:40]
Cum Sancto Spiritu [~53:35]
II. Credo [“Symbolum Nicenum”]
Et resurrexit [1:14:32]
IV. Osana, Agnus Dei, Benedictus, Dona Nobis Pacem
When you think of Rachmaninoff, a few things come to mind. You’ll probably think of his difficult piano writing, the audience pleasing technique, melodies perfect for whistling and humming, “pop” classical that can be put on in the background of cocktail parties. This superficial view of Rachmaninoff was upheld by critics during his life, and it is only afterward that he is being treated more fairly. Even so, there is this camp of people who think he was too “Romantic” for his time, that his music is all sentimentality and cheapness, I mean how else is he so popular? [ironically, the same people have no problem praising Beethoven’s genius, and he’s one of the top most popular composers EVER]. To the nay sayers who don’t want to look deeper into his concertos, the second symphony, the cello sonata, the preludes, or other “top hits” that have unique harmonic structure and rhythmic displacement, I’ll instead show the “sacred” side of the composer. Following in the Russian Orthodox tradition, Rachmaninoff wrote a setting of the All Night Vigil. He looks back to Tchaikovsky’s setting of the mass, and to original plainchant, and the result is music that is heavy in polyphony and textural variety. But I don’t want to load this description with jargon, with different musical elements, as if to try and justify its value. Listen for yourself! Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, or whether or not you have any, I’d bet you’d be moved by the music like I was when I discovered the piece in high school.
1. Come, let us worship / Придите, поклонимся 2. Praise the Lord, O, my soul / Благослови, душе моя 3. Blessed is the Man / Блажен муж 4. Gladsome light / Свете тихий 5. Lord, now lettest Thou (Nunc dimittis) / Ныне отпущтаеши 6. Rejoice, O Virgin (Ave Maria) / Богородице Дево, радуйся 7. Glory To God in the Highest (Hexapsalmos) / Слава въ вышнихъ Богу (шестопсалміе). 8. Praise the name of the Lord / Хвалите имя Господне 9. Blessed art Thou, O Lord / Благословен еси, Господи 10. Having beheld the Resurrection / Воскресение Христово видевше 11. My soul doth magnify the Lord (Magnificant) / Величит душа моя Господа 12. The Great Doxology / Славословие великое 13. Troparion: Today salvation has come / Тропарь: Днесь спасение 14. Troparion: Thou didst rise from the tomb / Тропарь: Воскрес из гроба 15. To Thee, the victorious Leader / Взбранной Воеводе
I got an email the other day reminding me that this blog has turned 3 years old [April 4th] and so I figured, why not “celebrate” with one of my favorite pieces? Over the past couple of days, a specific section of this work, toward the end, the arpeggios that the harp and celesta play together, has been stuck in my head, so I need to listen to this piece again. It’s also one of the first Mahler symphonies I heard, that got me into him, and since then he’s skyrocketed to the position of my favorite composer ever. The 8th is unique for a few reasons: it was the first symphony since the 4th to incorporate the human voice, and it is an almost completely sung through choral symphony, instead of just the finale. This was also a cumulation of Mahler’s musical writing: ode to Bach, emphasis on counterpoint, themes of love and redemption, and the power of song. While it started out as a multi movement work, Mahler opted for a two part symphony. The first part takes after the Latin hymn “Veni sreator spiritus” and works almost like a symphonic cantata. It’s a good half hour of non stop high octane music. The second part is a musical setting of the ending to Gothe’s Faust, and the music here is like a symphonic oratorio. It’s more relaxed than the first part, and has a heavier emphasis on transformation. Both parts deal with the idea of redemption through love, which Mahler injected into most of his music.
I have the proud privilege to be a part of this wonderful choir. Today, and throughout recent years, our world has been struck with horrid tragedies. Everybody hates, and nobody emphasizes with one another.
Such is also apparent on Tumblr, which is why I created this blog to begin with. Sometimes, we need a place to take refuge. I know there are a lot of teens on Tumblr, and I decided to post this here since no one uses Facebook nowadays.
I believe that my surprisingly insightful choir director, who just last year graduated from college, worded it better:
“Today we had the discussion of empathy. What is empathy? What is the ability to think critically? We are in a world that is hurting right now. One way to alleviate this hurt and pain is to understand other’s views, opinions, circumstances, etc. Our nation is too divided and is filled with hate and anger.
“The Battle Lake Concert Choir wishes to share one of our pieces with you. It’s still early in the year, and there is much to work on, but we feel that the world needs healing and this is how we can help in the meantime.
“This piece is called Requiem arranged by Craig Hella Johnson. The original piece performed by Eliza Gilkyson was written in response to the devastation left after Hurricane Katrina.”
Please share and reblog this if anyone you know needs a boost today!