Monday, July 23, 2012

Music Monday: Rachmaninoff's Vespers

Each Monday, I share a piece of music I really enjoy. This week, I've chosen Rachmaninoff's Vespers.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
All-Night Vigil (1915)
"Slava V Vyshnikh Bogu" (Glory to God in the Highest)

So much of the history of music is the history of church music. This is something that can cause a lot of issues in our "separation of church and state" society. Professional choirs (not that I've ever been in one, but I would assume) can do whatever they please, pretty much. The people who want to come and listen will; the ones who don't won't. But you hear about instances where certain music is essentially banned from a school curriculum for going against freedom of religion.

I don't remember this being a particular issue in my own experience. In high school, we did the Hallelujah Chorus every other year at the holiday concert. Probably lots of music at the holiday concert had religious meaning (though it was definitely a "holiday" concert and not a "Christmas" concert; I remember doing at least one Hanukkah song, along with secular holiday stuff like "Sleigh Ride" and whatnot). So, while it isn't something I ever had to deal with, and I don't actually know how widespread the issue is, it's still just one of those things you hear about. One of those things that came up in discussion back when I was still a music ed major.

I can somewhat understand where people are coming from with their concerns, especially if they do practice a different religion, but I think a lot of it is just noise for the sake of making noise. It's not like we would sit around and talk about God and Jesus. We just sang the music. There are so many groundbreaking pieces in choral literature that were composed for religious purposes, that to take it all away would be to miss out. And while, yes, it's important to have context for what you're singing, and what you want to convey through the music, you should be able to find a way to make it personal for you, whether or not you actually agree with the words.

Religious music is about celebrating something that's greater than yourself. Isn't that what all music does? Whether a composer creates something because he's passionate about God, or just music itself, it still comes from a giving of oneself. And whatever experiences and emotions you need to draw from to perform it, or whatever you may feel while listening to it, the end result is very similar.


I didn't pick a religious piece in order to get up on my soapbox about all this, it just all started swirling around in my head as I was listening. Because the thought that kept coming back to me is that this really is quintessential church music. This isn't music to be performed in a concert hall. This is music to be performed in the huge expanses of space of all those old European cathedrals. (Or, I guess in this case, old Russian cathedrals.)

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

The whole piece is so beautiful. Obviously there are some movements I prefer to others; that's just the nature of music. But still, it was VERY hard to narrow it down. I debated including recordings of two movements so that I wouldn't have to pick just one, but that honestly didn't make it any easier. Because if I'm going to pick two, I might as well go ahead and include three . . . or four . . . or five . . .

(You can see where this is going.)

So, in the end, I chose this one.

Not only is it beautiful, but it's a good example of what Rachmaninoff does throughout this whole composition, and that's to draw from many different music traditions. Listening to the entire work, there were parts that reminded me of music as far back as Medieval chant and Renaissance madrigals . . . but then there were other spots that were very clearly 20th century, combinations of sounds that Palestrina never would have approved of. Specifically, toward the middle of this movement, there is a buildup that reminds me of something Eric Whitacre (remember him from last week?) might write. Then, after a moment of silence, Rachmaninoff launches into a progression that sounds so basic, it almost could have been pulled from my first year music theory studies. But he pulls from all these different styles, and puts the sounds together in a way that works.

This is just a small slice of the whole. The entire work takes about an hour and is well-worth listening to.

Thanks for reading my latest Music Monday, my little way of sharing something I'm passionate about while introducing you to music you may be unfamiliar with. Let me know if you've enjoyed it, and let me know if there's something out there you think I should listen to.

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