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A note on the orthodox liturgy
The word ‘Liturgy’ is used in the Orthodox Church specifically to mean the Eucharistic service—what in the West would be called the Mass. There were in the early Church a number of Liturgies, but at the present day there are four forms in use in the Eastern Church: the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (the usual form on Sundays and days of the week), the Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used ten times a year), the Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (used on St James’s Day, 23 October, in only a few places in the world), and the Liturgy of the Presanctified, used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and the first three days of Holy Week. The Liturgy is always sung. Structurally, all these four have points in common with the Western Mass. A non-Orthodox would, for example, recognize in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom the Introit (in the the form of the Little Entrance), Epistle, Alleluia, Gospel, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Sanctus. A normal Sunday Liturgy lasts considerably longer than a Mass would usually do—somewhere between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours. In fact one of the characteristics of Orthodox services of all kinds is their length. For concert and recording purposes it is very frequently the case that the choral parts of the Liturgy only are sung; when some of the priest’s or deacon’s parts are included it is customary to omit much of the Eucharistic prayer. This is the procedure which has been adopted in the present recording.
Kastalsky was one of the musicians to whom Rachmaninov looked for advice during the composition of the Liturgy in 1910. Though he in fact quotes no actual chant, the melodic and harmonic style of the whole work is strongly influenced by the aesthetic ideals of Kastalsky, who himself wrote works in ‘chant style’ without actually using a chant melody. Just as important, however, is the influence of Tchaikovsky, whose legal victory over the publication of his own church music had made possible the great awakening of interest in the composition of sacred music in Russia. Though Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy and Vespers have always been somewhat disregarded by the Orthodox Church, their musical importance is just as great as their historical value, as Rachmaninov recognized.
It was in 1909 that Rachmaninov undertook his first tour of America. He hated the tour so much that he refused to agree to do any more, and spent the following summers at Ivanovka (his uncle’s country estate some 300 miles southeast of Moscow, which had recently passed into the composer’s possession) working on the Thirteen Preludes Op 32 (1910), the Liturgy Op 31 (also 1910), the Études-tableaux Op 33 (1911), the Fourteen Songs Op 34 (1910, 1912), and the Second Piano Sonata Op 36 (1913). 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.’ After hearing the work, Kastalsky made known to Rachmaninov certain objections he had to the setting (the ‘subjective’ Tchaikovskian element is after all more in evidence than the ‘objective’ chant-based style), and the ecclesiastical authorities did not sanction church performance of the work because of its ‘spirit of modernism’. Whatever Rachmaninov’s reaction to these criticisms, by the time the Vigil Service came to be composed in 1915, Kastalsky wrote glowingly of the way this ‘major artist’ made use of simple chant melodies.
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.
Rachmaninov was born forty years after the death of St Serafim of Sarov—one of the greatest of Russian mystics whose influence in his native country on all kinds of people during the last century was very considerable—and wrote his Liturgy a mere seven years before the Russian Revolution. As a man with a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the Church, Rachmaninov would, I think, have been and impressed and moved that his Liturgy has survived to be sung and recorded outside his native country so long after his own death.
Ivan Moody © 1994