The above audio is from "Priidite, Poklonimsya" (Come, let us worship) from Sergei Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (Harmonia Mundi, 2005)
On September 11, 1992, my father wrote a letter to his friends and family, entered the waters of the Massachusetts Bay off Revere Beach and never emerged. Because no body was found, I was not told of this until shortly before September 11, 1999. The time delay both harshened and dulled the news, removing the immediacy while nevertheless leaving a void one can only gain from the loss of a parent. I was entering high school that year, which added to the internal chaos surrounding this, and was still making sense of the news two years later when the planes hit the towers.
I spent the following summer in New York and, feeling especially raw on July 4th, spent a good portion of that afternoon in the Tower Records by Lincoln Center. The classical room had a steady rotation of Bernstein and Barber, but at one point an employee switched on Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, abruptly shifting from the bombast of the Candide Overture into the urgent quietude of the Russian Orthodox tradition. That wing of the store fell into reverent silence. The chorus’s first entrance in “Priidite, Poklonimsya,” following an utterly Russian bass solo, knocked the wind out of me. (You can sample that audio at the top of the page.)
While as a Jew I don’t have as strong a connection to sacred music as many of my Catholic and Christian brethren, my Roman Catholic maternal grandfather sang in the choir of St. Theresa’s Church in Pawtucket, RI, and I always associate the art form with childhoods spent squirming on an uncomfortable pew, craning my neck to see my grandfather in the choir stalls.
But what struck me then (and continues to move me now) not just about Rachmaninoff’s divinely simple music, but its powerful ability to communicate across borders and cultures, incorporating Kiev, Greek and Znamenny chant. Rachmaninoff, not a regular church-goer by any means, had in the midst of the First World War written a work that was equanimous in its reach while remaining distinctly nationalistic.
I’ve since turned frequently to the All-Night Vigil, both for its unadulterated beauty and cathartic powers. Much in the way more traditional requiem masses operate, it serves for me as a path to release and renewal. In that oh-so-Slavic way, its raw emotion tempers solace with a steely strength.