Friday, October 20, 2017

A Window Above: All-Night Vigil

Piece: All-Night Vigil, Op. 37
Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Premier: March 10, 1915, Moscow

The first piece I ever conducted in front of a live chorus was "Priidite, poklonimsya," the first movement of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, one of the masterworks of the a cappella repertoire.  It begins with a sustained, unison "amin" (Russian for amen) and my professor had stressed to me the difficulty of achieving a clean entrance.  He himself had struggled to get it right with our choir.  I was quite nervous standing in front of my singing colleagues.  Student conductors weren't a standard part of the experience for any of us so they were all watching me in curious anticipation.  I brought my hand down and they all came in, perfectly.  I was so surprised that I lurched a little, but I controlled my beat.  The main body of the piece is quite a challenge for a beginner, switching meters - unmarked in the score - every two measures.  We made it through together but I don't remember much else.  The moment that stayed with me, that will probably always remain with me, was that first, perfect entrance.  I expected many emotions from the experience: fear, anxiety, relief.  What I did not expect was the thrilling rush of power.  I brought my hand down and people sang.  Wow!

The All-Night Vigil is often mistakenly referred to as Vespers.  Only the first six of the 15 movements are from the Vespers service.  Movements 7-14 are from Matins and 15 is from The First Hour.  Our professor was a Russian choral music specialist and we performed several of the movements during my college career.  I would imagine that over the years, he's covered all of them.  It is also a piece my father has sung as a member of the Choral Arts Society of Washington.  That group made a recording of the work in 1987 at the National Cathedral, under the baton of Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich.

I love several of the movements for different reasons.  #1, of course, is forever tied to the experience described above (we didn't do the chants in the beginning).

#2 is my favorite as a listener.  It is slow and luscious, with that dazzling final note for the basses.  I imagine myself lying in a meadow, staring up at a universe of stars.  (This clip's a particularly gratifying find for me, given the group and its conductor - recorded a couple decades too late for this blogger to have been involved)

#9 was my favorite to sing - wonderfully dramatic.  The second tenor solo was one of my first solos in the college choir.


  1. Impressed with the conducting! I cannot hold a tune even in the shower, when it comes to music I need to follow a beat :-/ I have no speakers on my dear old PC but I do have a bit of Rachmaninov on vinyl :-)

    1. I am a music teacher by trade. All of the "firsts " seem a long time ago now.

  2. Later, when I have sound, I'll have to come give these a listen.

  3. Oh My Goodness, this is why I so enjoy blogging. You can find out so many fabulous thing about your blog friends.
    I knew you were a music teacher and have written a few times about the things you do in class.
    But to read about your conducting and what this music means to you makes hearing it so much better.
    Thank You for such a lovely post today.

    cheers, parsnip

  4. What a lovely way to start my day. :)

    Really enjoyed learning about your conducting too!

  5. Its awesome to come here and learn about your conducting. And to hear these in the morning today. Thank you!