Ivan Moody on the Rachmaninoff Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Following three sold-out performances last season of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (“Vespers”), this year Cappella Romana presents Rachmaninoff’s earlier sacred masterpiece, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910). Composer (and friend of Cappella Romana) Fr. Ivan Moody, published some wonderful program notes for the Corydon Singers recording of this work, and we’ll quote some of it here in order to give you a better understanding of the importance of this setting:
The end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries saw an attempt on the part of church musicians in Russia to rid the sacred repertoire of foreign influences—in particular Italian, but also German—and to return to a style directly inspired by the various repertories of Russian chant. Instrumental in this movement was the Moscow Synodal School, and a number of composers connected with this institution, such as Chesnokov and Kastalsky, had led the way in the revival and classification of traditional Russian chant. While Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil Service (‘Vespers’) of 1915 is rightly regarded as the culmination of this revival, and as one of the great monuments of Russian sacred music, his Liturgy of five years earlier should not be overlooked or merely dismissed as a ‘precedent’ for that work.
…The Liturgy was given its first performance by the Synodal Choir, under the direction of Nikolai Mikhailovich Danilin on 25 November, 1910. Writing to his friend Nikita Morozov, Rachmaninov said: ‘I have been thinking about the Liturgy for a long time and for a long time I was striving to complete it. I started work on it somehow by chance, and then suddenly became fascinated with it. And then I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time … have I written anything with such pleasure.’ …
Musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition. (Reminiscences of Tchaikovsky’s own Liturgy in, for example, the athletic melodic and harmonic writing of the Second Antiphon are far from shocking to present-day listeners.) The richness of the scoring, the ‘choral orchestration’ that is such a characteristic of Russian sacred music of the time, is, if not quite as varied as in the Vigil, nevertheless deeply impressive. The feeling for liturgical appropriateness is also never absent, as anyone who has heard the Cherubic Hymn or the eight-part Lord’s Prayer sung during a service will know. Though many of the denser harmonic passages (Milost mira, the Lord’s Prayer, and Da ispolnyatsya usta nasha) and technical difficulties to be found in the broad construction of the First Antiphon and elsewhere put the work beyond the reach of the average Russian parish church choir, there is nothing intrinsically un-liturgical about the writing, and indeed there is little of greater difficulty than much of Bortnyansky’s music, for example. The work is in many senses an apotheosis of a particular style of writing. It is to be hoped that the Liturgy, which is seldom performed and has seldom been recorded, will become as well-known as its companion, the Vigil…
8pm, Fri., Jan. 11, St. Mary’s Cathedral
8pm, Sat., Jan. 12, Holy Rosary Church, West Seattle
3pm, Sun., Jan. 13, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
Free pre-concert talks one hour prior to each performance.