Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Vespers

At the mention of Rachmaninoff’s name, I always think “piano.” His first, second, and third piano concertos followed by the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, of course, place him at the pinnacle of composers for that instrument. But every so often, I come across a recording of his Vespers and remember that it contains some of the most beautiful choral music ever written.

I discovered this recording by accident and by luck. While combing through the bins of Rachmaninoff’s music at the local mall one day in 1974, I came across the recording of the Vespers. The lucky thing for me was that the two-record set had been mismarked as a single, so though unfamiliar with the music, I snapped up the album anyway.

What I heard completely astounded me. Written between 1910 and 1915, it is a series of A capella (voices only) choruses. They have a distinctly Russian flavor, being based on ancient slavic melodies. Some of them have a driving rhythm, sung at a slow tempo, which imitates the pealing of bells.

But by far, my favorite is the fifth movement, which is called “Lord, now letttest Thou Thy servant depart.” Supposedely the prayer on which the text is taken is used when Russian Orthodox children are presented to the church. As it nears the end, it slows and the bases take the melody. Their voices go low, lower, and finally so impossibly low that you can barely hear them. During rehearsals for the first performance, the conductor exclaimed: “Where can we possibly find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!”

In the liner notes of my recording, I read that when the priest receives the child, he places the child on the ground. The parents then retrieve the child, picking it up from the earth to symbolize it is the earth from which all things are made. The music is so fitting therefore, as the voices bring us down to ground level. Very earthy indeed.


Buy CD of Rachmaninov. Vespers or download MP3s on Amazon.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Vespers

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    This is indeed extraordinarily beautiful and sits right next to the composer’s sublime symphony and piano concerto. Terrific essay!


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