Tchaikovsky: All-Night Vigil


Benedict Sheehan, an emerging authority on Russian Orthodox singing and music director at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery in Pennsylvania, makes his Cappella Romana debut with selections from Tchaikovsky’s groundbreaking All-Night Vigil, Op. 52, and his transcendent Nine Sacred Pieces.

The Sunday matinée performance at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hillsboro is in conjunction with their annual Fall Festival which is open to the public. Tickets to the festival’s German dinner may also be added as a package for only $18.

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Tchaikovsky’s All-Night Vigil

By the middle of the 19th century, efforts to remake Russian Orthodox sacred music in the image of its Western European counterparts—a process memorably chronicled in several of Cappella’s earlier programs—had essentially succeeded. Begun informally in the late seventeenth century and elevated to the level of national policy by composers of Italian opera at the court of Catherine the Great, this had led by the late 19th century to what some contemporary observers saw as a state of decadence. Among the country’s nobility and urban elite, Russia’s rich inheritance of native chant was all but forgotten in its original form. Instead, choirs tended to sing either simplified chants harmonized amateurishly by hacks associated with the Imperial Chapel (which had the right to censor all publications of church music) or free compositions in Western European styles that clashed with mystical ethos of Byzantine worship.

When he was at the height of his creative powers, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93) made a series of decisive interventions in the field of Russian Orthodox music. The first was his Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 41 of 1878, a musically original setting of the Orthodox Eucharist. The Liturgy provoked a notorious lawsuit filed by the head of the Imperial Chapel, who sought to halt the publication of Tchaikovsky’s work. Ultimately, this action had the opposite effect, for Tchaikovsky won the case and the Imperial Chapel’s right of censorship was effectively rescinded, unleashing within the realm of sacred music the creativity of an illustrious line of composers: Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Chesnokov and Rachmaninoff (the so-called ‘Vespers’, opus 37 of 1915), to name but a few.

The sacred masterpieces of Tchaikovsky’s successors, however, would have been unthinkable without the example provided to them by the other works he composed during the 1880s for Russian Orthodox worship. The first of these was his All-Night Vigil, opus 52, subtitled “An essay in harmonizing liturgical hymns.” In this work, Tchaikovsky returned directly to the sources of Russia’s musical traditions by setting for mixed chorus ancient chants of the Znamenny, Kievan and (Russian) “Greek” repertories. He did so in the context of a massive collection of music for the All-Night Vigil, a service celebrated on the eves of Sundays and major holidays. A composite service comprised of Orthodox Vespers (evening prayer), Orthros (the dawn prayer service also known as ‘Matins’) and the short service of Prime (sung at the “first hour” of a solar day), the All-Night Vigil was normally performed in an abbreviated form lasting two to three hours (only in strict monasteries would the service live up to its name). Each component of the service features a combination of psalms and hymns that may be fixed or variable, both with regard to their texts and music.

Bearing all of this in mind, Tchaikovsky chose to set only certain key elements from the standard “cut” Vigil service, a practice imitated by all subsequent composers of “All-Night Vigils.” Devotees of Rachmaninoff ’s work will be intrigued to hear Tchaikovsky’s rather different approaches to some of the same fixed chants of Vespers and Matins, notably including the opening psalm “Bless the Lord,” “Gladsome Light,” and the Great Doxology. Tchaikovsky, however, made far greater concessions to the service’s variability than did Rachmaninoff who, with one exception, set only fixed elements of Sunday’s Vigil. Thus several liturgical items in Tchaikovsky’s Opus 52 are provided with eight alternate settings, each one corresponding to the Orthodox Church’s eight-week cycle of hymns (the Octoechos) in successive musical modes. The result is a practical resource that could never be sung in its entirety at a single service, yet would still require additional music when used in actual worship.

—Alexander Lingas