When the envoys of Kievan Rus returned home from Constantinople, they told their master, Prince Vladimir: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards.”
You want to return the compliment when you listen to Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil in the glorious surrounds of one of Brunswick’s most iconic landmarks, the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos (Pokrov) Russian Orthodox Church. Russian chant, with its dizzyingly high pitch, is a stairway to the sublime, uplifting, propelling the listener ever towards the celestial. In contrast, the Byzantine chant, its progenitor, is grounded, resonating from the depths of doors of Hades to the Gates of Paradise, echoing throughout the ecumene as it girds itself around the heavens and pulls them down to make them accessible to all who cast their eyes upward, while never forgetting where they stand.
To stand in the Pokrov Church and to decode its Old Yaroslavl-style iconography as the entire drama of the Gospels unfolds itself before your eyes is to witness the melding of the Greek and Russian traditions of old. The lean, elongated body of Saint John Chrysostom, looms over the iconostasis, while the Prophet Ilia is drawn into the heavens on a fiery chariot of such vibrant hues of crimson, they sizzle at a mere glance. A Greek icon of Panagia Portaitissa guards the north door, while to the south, a mournful icon of Tsar Nicholas II, transfixes the viewer. Yet the pilgrim’s eye is drawn ever up the impossibly lofty Russian iconostasis to Christ enthroned in the heavens and above him, His face upon the Mandylion, the cloth He, according to tradition, gifted to King Abgar of Edessa, taken to Constantinople and borne before the victorious armies of Byzantium. With the triangle formed by that face of Utmost Serenity, His Mother at the Door and the slain King, the entire history of Orthodox Christianity is implied. To the Greek worshipper, all this is familiar. A common aesthetic vocabulary is immediately identified.
It is for this reason that the recent performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil within the Church is so fitting. To listen to choir sing Orthodoxy’s most triumphant hymn: Τη Υπερμάχω Στρατηγώ (Thee, Victorious Leader) with such exuberant brio, such a contrast to the contained and confident triumphal Byzantine rendition, is to marvel at the complexity of context within the historical tradition. After all we celebrate the Theotokos’ delivering Constantinople from the hands of the Avars and the Slavs. Consequently, our Russian brethren, with enthusiasm and profoundly moving joy celebrate our delivery from their ancestors. Indeed, the Pokrov Church itself, commemorates this event. According to the Primary Chronicle of Saint Nestor, the inhabitants of Constantinople called upon the intercession of the Theotokos to protect them from an attack by a large pagan Rus army. According to Nestor, the feast celebrates the destruction of this fleet sometime in the ninth century, and the Pokrov Church was built in honour of Panayia’s timely delivery of the Greeks.
Rachmaninov wrote his All Night Vigil in 1915, in a Russia on the cusp of change. A revolution in the composition of Russian Orthodox sacred music, it made its first appearance just prior to the 1917 Revolution that would shatter the myth of Holy Mother Russia forever. The last great sacred music work of the old imperial regime, it is a swan-song to the complacency of eternity, interwoven throughout with stoic acceptance of the trials that are to come, and the serene confidence that endurance, in the Brave New Iconoclastic World, where the old is shattered and the new is worshipped in its place, is based on remembrance of things past. It is a divine drama that is still in the process of unfolding in the present day, its permutations both predictable for those steeped within the iconography of sound and yet unfathomable.
In his selection of troparia and psalms from the Vespers, the Matins and the Prime Canon, Rachmaninov not only signals the coming of the new by offering completely new arrangements but also, expertly interposes these with conscious counterfeits. He deliberately imitates three primary Orthodox styles: the Znamenny, a unison, melismatic liturgical chant which melds the Slavonic and Byzantine traditions and was in use until the Russian church moved towards western polyphony in the seventeenth century, the Kievan, with its shorter and rhythmically simpler melodies and more pronounced distinctions between recitative and melismatic passages, and the Greek chant, most apparent in Rachmaninov’s “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” which retain as a base, from which to soar among the clouds, the version of the chant still sung in Greek Orthodox churches to the present day. This then is work that proclaims a tradition that is common to all and that is comprised of the sum of its parts. As such, it is powerfully oecumenical and post-nationalist.
This melismatic approach to the tradition held in common by the Greeks and the Russians is also exemplified in the manner of composition. Each voice is divided into as many as three parts, signifying the constituents of the tradition. The hymn “Glory to the God in the Highest” includes an incredible eleven part harmony that creates intensely dense, evocative textures unseen in other sacred works. Though employing a classical western vocabulary, Rachmaninov avoids the more Occidental choral traditions of contrapuntal and fugal writing following the chant in mostly step-wise motion within modal harmonies. His then, is the music blueprint for fixing a place of ancient ethnic traditions within a broader, much younger mainstream perspective. Evoking Byzantine chthonic practice, his basso profundo regularly descends to the lowest C and on one occasion, lower, to the B flat. Prior to its first performance, the choir conductor is said to have asked, “Where do I find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” The answer of course, lies within.
In keeping with Rachmaninov’s, all inclusive, love letter approach to hallowed heritage, it was perhaps fitting that the Melbourne Chamber Choir’s recent performance in the Pokrov Church featured remarkable Greek-Australian contralto, Alexandra Amerides, a breathtakingly talented performer who began her career at the age of sixteen and has held scholarships with Melbourne’s most distinguished choirs, most notably, the Choir of Trinity College and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. As a contralto, possessed of the lowest vocal range for a female singer, her deep, burnished sound arrests the upward propensity of the chant and grounds it, only to send it soaring into the sky once more. Her artful command of vocal colour and range, combined with her young, vibrant physical presence, underlies Rachmaninov’s convictions as to eternity, placing her at the epicentre of the composer’s complex use of harmony, textual variety and polyphony.
READ MORE: Timeless melodies for a better world
In an increasingly intolerant and totalitarian world, a performance of Rachmaninov’s articulation of Orthodoxy’s eternal truths is as timely in Melbourne as ever before. Banned in 1918 by the Soviet Regime, and its sixth movement appropriated most recently by Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot as the basis for its protest song “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” the All Night Vigil is an irrepressible voice of protest against all forms of insular dogmaticism and a most profound tone poem for the rapturous bliss of unity and the splendid elation of common humanity.
After all, that is what the Protection of the Theotokos, confers. According to Sacred Tradition, the Theotokos appeared at the Blachernae Church in Constantinople in the tenth century. Early in the morning of 1 October, St Andrew the Blessed Fool for Christ witnessed the dome of the church opening and the Theotokos entering, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Theotokos asked Her Son to accept the prayers of all the people entreating Him and looking for Her protection. Once Her prayer was completed, She walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, She spread Her veil over all the people in the church as a protection and vanished.
Long after the music had ended, I remained transfixed, looking up at the point Rachmaninov’s musical mantle had inevitably led me to: a fresco of the Resurrected Christ hauling Adam and Eve from their graves. As the audience continued to clap, an old woman, veiled in a headscarf sitting next to me with a thick Slavic accent observed: “They just don’t get it do they?”
“What don’t they get?” I asked, my eyes still glued to the fresco.
“That this is not a performance of an obscure piece of music. It is existence, life itself.”
I turned to answer, and she was gone.