Rachmaninov: The Great Litany

I came across this beautiful piece of music recently:

It is the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Op 31, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Great Litany (Великая ектения). According to the information on Wikipedia, it is “a prayerful petition in the Eastern Orthodox/Eastern Catholic liturgy. The prevalent ecclesiastical word for this kind of litany in Greek is Συναπτή. It is called the Great Litany not only because of its length, but because of its importance, coming near the beginning of major services such as the Divine Liturgy, Matins, Vespers, Baptism, Great Blessing of Waters, etc. This ektenia is also called the Litany of Peace (Greek: Εἰρηνικά/Eirênika; Slavonic: Мирнаѧ Ектенїѧ/Mirnaya Ekteniya) because of the opening petition: ‘In peace, let us pray to the Lord'”.

On the Webpage of British Choirs on the Net there is a very good article about Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)

(Source: Choirs.Uk.org)
Although in the western Christian tradition the word ‘liturgy’ is used to describe the wording and form of any religious office, in the Orthodox Church, it refers specifically to the eucharistic rite – what a Catholic would call ‘The Mass’. In common with the western rite, ‘The Liturgy’ contains an Introit, sentences for the Epistle and Gospel, the Creed, Sanctus and Benedictus; it also includes a number of Litanies and a Eucharistic Prayer.

John of Antioch was chosen as Bishop of Constantinople in 398 A.D., largely on the reputation of his devotional and inspiring sermons (the Greek soubriquet ‘Chrysostom’ means ‘golden-mouth’). Despite opposition to his attempts to reform the lives and morals of the citizens by the Empress Eudora (and his eventual exile by her in 404 A.D.), John became regarded as a father of the early church, and was canonized shortly after his death. Among his surviving works are his radiant sermon for Easter day, a prayer (‘…when two or three are gathered together in Thy name…‘) and his version of the Orthodox liturgy. In fact, it is probable that the ‘Liturgy of St John Chrysostom’ is actually a later adaptation of two earlier liturgies – those by St. Basil and St. James – and merely dedicated to the reforming patriarch who began the process of change. For many centuries, however, the ‘Chrysostom Liturgy’ has been the most used version of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church, and when Russia adopted the Orthodox faith in the 10th century, the Liturgy, (translated into Church Slavonic) was adopted too.

This setting of ‘The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’, written in 1910, was the first of Sergei Rachmaninov’s three major choral works, the others being ‘The Bells’ (1913) and the ‘All-night Vigil’ or ‘Vespers’ (1915). The composer had just returned from a harrowing tour of the United States, and he settled down, at his recently-inherited estate at Ivanovka, to a period of steady Russian-inspired composing. Although history marks Rachmaninov down as not being particularly religious, it is clear from his letters to friends and colleagues, and from the nature of the work (it is a complete setting of the Liturgy, including responses to prayers for priests/deacons) that he intended the work to be used in church rather than just as a concert piece (Tchaikovsky’s 1878 setting of The Liturgy had been condemned by the church authorities as being too frivolous). Rachmaninov’s written codicil on the manuscript (‘Finished, thanks be to God, 30 July 1910, Ivanovka’) would seem to confirm his spiritual motivation. In a letter to his friend Morozov, Rachmaninov wrote: ‘I have long thought about the Liturgy, and I have long aimed at it. I took it up rather by chance and immediately got carried away. After that, I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time…have I written anything with such pleasure‘. In fact the piece was composed in an astonishingly short time – less than three weeks. Unlike ‘The All-night Vigil’ (which contains several movements based on traditional Orthodox Znamenny chant), ‘The Liturgy’ is entirely free-composed and contains no extraneous material. For guidance on the content of the work, Rachmaninov turned to Alexander Kastalsky, director of the Moscow Synodal School (a religious foundation); it was the choir of the school that gave the piece its first (secular) performance on 25 November 1910. Alas, once again, the church authorities were unimpressed, and felt that Rachmaninov’s setting was not suitable for church use, and so it was probably never performed in a religious context – as a teacher of religion at the Synodal School remarked: ‘…absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music’.

Barry Creasy
Collegium Musicum of London

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