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A brief biography

Abram Chasins:
“As I Saw Rachmaninoff”


Sergei Vassilyevich Rachmaninoff

“Music is enough for a lifetime,
but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

Music historians have come to view Sergei Rachmaninoff as the last great figure of the grand Russian Romantic tradition – a Tchaikovskyesque composer devoted to melody and lyricism during a period of dramatic musical upheaval. He was also one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of his day, with nimble, massive hands that could play 12ths (an octave plus a fifth, from C to G).

He was born in Russia on April 1, 1873, on his grandparents’ estate near Lake Ilmen in the Navgorod District. His parents, both amateur pianists, were military people – his father a retired army officer and his mother the daughter of a Russian general – and Sergei himself was destined for a military career. Through a series of financial reversals, however, his father lost the family fortune and then deserted the family. Those financial difficulties sent the family to St. Petersburg, where Sergei studied at the Conservatory, and then to Moscow.

Rachmaninoff’s cousin Aleksandr Siloti, a conductor, concert pianist and student of Franz Liszt, recognized Sergei’s talent and suggested piano studies with Nikolay Zverev in Moscow. It was Zverev who gave young Sergei the purpose and discipline he needed (he had always been considered somewhat lazy).

When Rachmaninoff graduated from the Conservatory at age 19, he was already known as a composer and concert pianist. His first piano concerto dates from that time, as does his Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, a work that was so wildly popular with audiences that Rachmaninoff was condemned to play it as an encore throughout his life. (He grew to loathe what he referred to simply as “it.”)

As a young man, Rachmaninoff was plagued by self-doubt and uncertainty and was subject to depression and emotional crises, particularly over success or criticism of his works. The disastrous première of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor in March 1897 under the baton of Alexander Glazunov sent him into one of his deepest depressions. (Historians have suggested that Glazunov’s conducting was egregiously poor and that the piece was under-rehearsed; Rachmaninoff’s wife later suggested that Glazunov had been drunk.) He was taken to to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a psychiatrist whose course of therapy ultimately restored Rachmaninoff’s confidence and allowed him to resume composing. He dedicated his Second Piano Concerto (1901) to Dahl and performed the première himself.

In the year following that première, a long battle with the Orthodox Church was resolved in Rachmaninoff’s favor: He received permission to marry his cousin, Natalia Satina, after an engagement that had lasted several years. They were married by an army priest in 1902.

In 1904, against a background of growing political strife, Rachmaninoff accepted a position as conductor at the Bolshoi Theater. The situation in Russia continued to deteriorate, with strikes, agrarian disturbances, army mutinies and the Revolution of 1905. In 1906, Rachmaninoff left for Italy with his family and then settled in Dresden, Germany, where he continued composing. He wrote his Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (1909) for his first concert tour of the United States, where he made his debut as a pianist in November 1909, with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch. His tour included conducting engagements in Philadelphia and Chicago, and he was offered the position of conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He declined the offer, left the United States and returned to Russia in February 1910.

It was during Rachmaninoff’s second period in Russia – from February 1910 until after the Revolution of 1917 – that he composed his two major sacred choral works, The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in 1910 and The All-Night Vigil (Vespers) in 1915. Neither work was welcome in the Orthodox Church, whose ban on such compositions had been in place since 1878, when Tchaikovsky had composed his own Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Critics, however, gave Rachmaninoff’s Vespers an enthusiastic reception. Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony, The Bells, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, also dates from this period.

After the Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia and moved his family to the United States, where he spent the remaining 25 years of his life. With the exception of two major works – Symphony No. 3 in A minor (1936) and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) – he composed very little after leaving Russia, but concertized extensively in the United States and Europe. He died March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Texts

The All-Night Vigil, Opus 37 (Vespers)

1. Priidite, poklonimsia
(Come let us worship)

Come, let us worship God, our King.
Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God.
Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and our God.
Come, let us worship and fall down before Him.

2. Blagoslovi, Dushe Moya
(Bless the Lord, O My Soul)

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord.
My Lord, Thou art very great.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord.
Thou art clothed with honor and majesty.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord.
The waters stand upon the mountains.
Marvelous are Thy works, O Lord.
The waters flow between the hills.
Marvelous are Thy works, O Lord.
In wisdom hast Thou made all things.
Glory to Thee, O Lord, who hast created all, created all.

3. Blazhen Muzh
(Blessed Be the Man)

Blessed be the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. Alleluia ...
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in Him with trembling. Alleluia ...
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Alleluia ...
Arise, 0 Lord. Save me, 0 my God. Alleluia ...
Salvation is of the Lord; and Thy blessing is upon Thy people. Alleluia ...
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, O God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, O God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, O God.

4. Svete Tikhyi
(O Serene Light)

Serene Light of the holy glory of the Immortal, the Heavenly Father, holy and blessed, Jesus Christ. Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening, we praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God. Thou art worthy at every moment to be praised in hymns by reverent voices. O Son of God, Thou art the Giver of Life; therefore all the world glorifies Thee.

5. Nynye Otpushchayeshi
(Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant)

Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.

6. Bogoroditsye Devo
(Rejoice, O Virgin)

O Virgin Theotokos, rejoice.
Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of Thy womb, for Thou hast borne the Savior of souls.

7. Slava V Vyshnikh Bogu
(Glory to God in the Highest)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.
O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.

8. Khvalite Imya Gospodne
(Praise the name of the Lord)

Praise the name of the Lord. Alleluia.
Praise the Lord, O you His servants. Alleluia, alleluia.
Blessed be the Lord from Zion, He who dwells in Jerusalem. Alleluia.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good. Alleluia, alleluia.
For His mercy endures forever. Alleluia.
O give thanks unto the God of Heaven. Alleluia, alleluia.
For His mercy endures forever. Alleluia.

9. Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi
(Blessed art Thou, O Lord)

Blessed art Thou, O Lord. Teach me Thy statutes.
The angelic host was filled with awe when it saw Thee among the dead.
By destroying the power of death, O Savior, Thou didst raise Adam and save all men from hell.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord. Teach me Thy statutes.
“Why do you women dilute the myrrh with your tears?” In the tomb the radiant angel cried to the myrrhbearers: “Look at the tomb and understand: The Savior is risen from the dead.”
Blessed art Thou, O Lord. Teach me Thy statutes.
Very early in the morning the myrrhbearers ran to Thy tomb, lamenting; but an Angel came to them and said: “The time for sorrow has ended. Weep not, but announce the resurrection to the apostles.”
Blessed art Thou, O Lord. Teach me Thy statutes.
The sorrowful myrrhbearers neared Thy tomb, O Savior. The Angel said to them: “Why do you number the living among the dead? Since He is God, He is risen from the tomb!”
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
We worship the Father, and His Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Holy Trinity, one in essence. With the Seraphim we cry: “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord!”
Both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
By giving birth to the Giver of Life, O Virgin, Thou didst deliver Adam from his sin. Thou gavest joy to Eve instead of sadness. The God-man who was born of Thee has restored to life those who had fallen from it.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Glory to Thee, O God!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Glory to Thee, O God!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Glory to Thee, O God!

10. Voskreseniye Khristovo Videvshe
(Hymn of the Resurrection)

Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One. We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we hymn and glorify Thy holy resurrection: for Thou art our God, and we know no other; we call on Thy name. Come, all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy resurrection. For, behold, through the cross joy has come into all the world. Ever blessing the Lord, let us praise His resurrection, for by enduring the cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.

11. Velichit Dusha Moya Gospoda
(My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord)

My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit doth rejoice in God my Savior.
[Refrain:] More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without defilement Thou gavest birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify Thee.
For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. [Refrain]
For He who is mighty hath done great things for me, and holy is His name, and His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation [Refrain]
He hath put down the mighty from their thrones and hath exalted those of low degree; He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away. [Refrain]
He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever. [Refrain]

12. Slava V Vyshnikh Bogu
(Glory to God in the Highest)

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory. O Lord, Heavenly King, God the Father almighty. O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. Thou who takest away the sin of the world, receive our prayer. Thou who sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us. For Thou only art holy, Thou alone art the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen. Every day I will bless Thee and praise Thy name forever and ever.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, God of our fathers, and praised and glorified be Thy name forever. Amen.
Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope on Thee.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord. Teach me Thy statutes.
Lord, Thou has been our refuge from generation to generation.
I said: Lord, have mercy on me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee.
Lord, I flee to Thee. Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; for with Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light we shall see light.
Continue Thy mercy on those who know Thee.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

13. Dnes Spaseniye Miru Byst
(Troparia of the Day of Salvation)

Today salvation has come to the world.
Let us sing to Him who rose from the dead, the Author of our life; having destroyed death by death, He has given us the victory and great mercy.

14. Voskres Iz Groba
(Troparia of the Resurrection)

Thou didst rise from the tomb and burst the bonds of hell, didst destroy the condemnation of death, O Lord, releasing all mankind from the enemy’s snares, didst show Thyself to Thine apostles, and didst send them forth to proclaim Thee; and through them Thou hast granted Thy peace to the world, Thou who art plenteous in mercy.

15. Vzbrannoy Voyevode
(Thanksgiving to the Mother of God)

To Thee, the victorious Leader of Triumphant hosts, we Thy servants, delivered from evil, offer hymns of thanksgiving. O Theotokos! Since Thou dost possess invincible might, set us free from all calamities, so that we may cry to Thee: “Rejoice, O unwedded Bride!”