When the works of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff come to mind, the first things we think of are monstrously large piano chords and richly emotional orchestrations that represent the pinnacle of Russian Romanticism. So, when we happened upon his 1915 sacred work “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” from his greater work All-Night Vigil, we were fascinated to learn that one of the most talented composers of the 20th century had delved into Christian music.
Opening with the rumbling low notes of the basso profundo that so frequently mark Russian choral pieces, the hymn launches into an angelic sounding choir led by a strong alto voice. Written in a chant style, this main melodic line acts as a call, while the tenor and sopranos sing in the response. The subtle melismatic movement of the voices pay homage to the polyphonic style of sacred music, pioneered by composers of the Renaissance such as Palestrina and Byrd, while the complex chord patterns bring an unmistakably Romantic color to the chant.
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil is considered by music historians to be one of the composer’s greatest works, as well as the culmination of the previous two decades of Russian sacred music, which was brought to prominence by the composer Tchaikovsky when he wrote a version of the All-Night Vigil, in 1881. While Rachmaninoff was clearly inspired by this work from Tchaikovsky, the former’s composition is much more complex in terms of chord construction and harmony.
The serenity evoked by this masterful composition is sublime, but it left us lamenting that the course of history prevented Rachmaninoff from exploring religious music more thoroughly. Just three years after Rachmaninoff debuted All-Night Vigil to a receptive Moscow crowd, the Soviet Union prohibited religious music and replaced the Synodal Choir with a non-religious “People’s Choir Academy.” Be that as it may, we were left with this surprising work by a great artist, which will continue to be celebrated for years to come.