The Chant and Romantic Mesh of the All-Night Vigil (Op. 37) by Rachmaninov


Rachmaninov once said,“Melodic invention is the real aim of every composer… inventing melodies that endure”.[1] Rachmaninov achieved notable melodies within his All-Night Vigil or “Vespers,” but they were not all his. Being that he wrote this work for a Russian Orthodox religious practice meant that it was necessary to include chant melodies and chant styled writing for it to be applicable to the service. Unfortunately it wasn’t considered popular to use within the Churches when it was written. What is assumed by scholars is that either it was too difficult to be performed by church choirs, or it was considered too influenced by the modern style of composition, more specifically the Romantic style, to be used in a church at all. [2] As for the work itself, the combination of both ancient chant and Romantic styled writing distinctive to the late 1800 to early 1900 is evident, but it is the magnitude of this combination is what makes the All-Night Vigil so unique. The Ninth Movement , ‘Blessed art thou.’ in particular, explicitly captures both styles by separating them into segments. But, as the work continues Rachmaninov strings both styles together exemplifying a unique use of chant melody, which in turn makes this work a genre of its own.

Before differentiating between the styles, they must be defined sufficiently. Beginning with what is most difficult to define is Rachmaninov’s style. Rachmaninov was considered the last voice of the Romantic Period and one of his largest influences was Tchaikovsky in the first half of his compositional career.[3] However, it didn’t take him long to mature and produce his own version of the Russian romantic style. To define his music roughly, he used more of what some consider random and modulatory movement. He seemed to change keys on a whim to the naked eye, but not so to where it became modernist. His faith in the Romantic style was too strong for him to truly break away from that tradition. When Rachmaninov wrote the All-Night Vigil World War I had just broke out as well as the beginnings of a civil war occurring within Russia.[4] Although Rachmaninov did not write much in Russia when the war began, he managed to write the All-Night Vigil. He loved this work so much that 25 years later he quoted  passages from the Ninth movement in his final orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances (1940). After writing both his Op. 38 and Op. 39 he and his family fled Russia in 1917 due to the increasing inner conflict occurring within the Russian government.[5] As a result, the newly formed Soviet Russia claimed his compositions to be “anti-soviet” and banned his music from being performed.[6] However, this did not stop the people of Russia from loving his works. In fact, the Moscow Conservatory illegally recorded the All-Night Vigil and shared it with numerous musicians and some of the Russian populace.[7]

To put the All-Night Vigil in religious context, Rachmaninov wrote the work for the Russian Orthodox Church. Although he did not consider himself a ‘believer’ research shows that he did worship in the Russian Orthodox Church as a child, thus making this work somewhat reminiscent of the ancient practices still in use during his childhood. The religious practice it was intended for was an All-Night Vigil which would run from Saturday Vespers through Sunday Matins while the work itself was dispersed throughout the service. This ritual was practiced the eve of specific Sundays that were considered significant or Liturgical Feasts which were mostly Easter.[8] The music style that the Russian Orthodox Church used, more specifically during the 15th century, was ‘znamennïy chant,’ which was a much older variant of notation containing a mode that we now as Aeolian mode. Znamennyïy chant was also practiced both Monophonic and Homophonic styles of writing as time progressed.[9]

To discuss Znamennyïy homophony more in depth involves the awareness of both origin and types of chant. In accordance with the Russian Orthodox Church, chant forms are divided by eight “Tones” or modes. These chant Tones are established under a very large category of Obikhod Chant, which contains all of the ancient Russian Orthodox chant forms and melodies.[10] Within each Tone there are five different types of melodies. In accordance with the Obikhod, Rachmaninov uses a Psalm tone with an Prokiemenom/Alleluia melody, which is most often correlated with the Znamennyïy chant melody.[11] To further explain, each Tone has a liturgical purpose. The Psalm tone essentially consists of a Psalm verse that is repeated in between other verses. For example, Rachmaninov writes the Psalm tone in the first four measures. More in line with the Prokeimenon structuring, the chant is only written in one phrase homophonically. The writing for the parts as well, showing a consistent rhythmic pattern for the phrase distinctively exemplifying the Prokeimenon style. Within the musical phrase the text reads, “Blessed be thy name, O Lord; teach me the way of thy statutes[12] which can be found in Psalms 119:12. This text and the chant styled melody that corresponds with it, is threaded throughout and segmented in between verses giving this musical phrase a liturgical Psalm tone style.

Structuring a Psalm tone requires a division of four segments. The first being the “Introduction” which is the very beginning of the phrase. Second being the “reciting tone” which serves as the girth of the phrase. Then reciting tone leads into the “preparation” which is then followed by the “cadence” concluding the phrase.[13] The first measures serves as the introduction leading into the reciting tone. Traditionally, monophonic chant using the reciting tone serves as a short recitative leaving rhythmic interpretation to the singer.[14] In the homophonic versions of chant melody, requires a more defined rhythmic structure enabling the voices to be more organized during the reciting tone. Note that the reciting tone within a homophonic structure must have a voice that stays consistently on a single note throughout the entire phrase. In reference to the first four measures, the preparation occurs in the fourth beat of measure 3 resolving by step in the first tenors and baritones until the cadence. Meanwhile the second tenors have consistently stayed on an A throughout the entire phrase serving as the singular reciting tone. The bass part moves mostly to the root of the chords presented. In western terminology, this chant is in the Aeolian mode but due to the Znamennyïy part writing tradition, all (V) chords are presented with open fifths.[15] A seventh is even presented in a V chord but it still is without a third. Another tradition within homophonic Znamennyïy chant writing is at least one part must serve as the reciting tone. Monophonically the reciting tone is sung with one pitch. The same can be said for a single part of the homophonic form of Znamennyïy chant writing. The second tenors serve this role singing an (A) throughout the entire phrase.

Measures 1-4:


To delve deeper into the work itself requires closer analyzation of the text and musical correspondence. Because the 9th movement serves as the climax to the entire work, the importance of both symbolism and musical emphasis are made blatant. The first example, measures 17-21 emphasizes text painting and foreshadowing of the later themes. The text reads,“Wherefore mingle ye the sweet smelling ointment, O ye disciples, with your pitying tears?” ‘ shining from the tomb spake the Angel to the woman bearing spices’ “Behold ye the tomb, and be of good cheer,  for he is not here, but is risen.”[17] The text not only speaks from the Angel’s perspective, but the music as well. Starting from measure 18 the women sing FM homophonically representing the angels. The tenors stick to the Znamennyïy chant style independently on their own line differing in both rhythmic and melodic orientation in comparison to the rest of the parts. The basses serve as a drone on D throughout the entire section, but the baritones do something rather different. Starting in the measure 18, baritones begin a line in (A) Aeolian mode, but the melody actually foreshadows a rhythmic variation of the same theme in measures 54-55. Much like the tenors, this theme is sung independently having it interact with the rest of the themes presented in that section. This alone displays both Rachmaninov’s and the chant styles interplaying with each other. Although all styles within each voice have chant influences, Rachmaninov combines all parts to create a mixture of Am, FM, and Dm to which only his own style could portray.

Measure 17             Measures 18-19                                        Measures 20-21


The second example are measures 54-58 which serves an introduction to the climax of the entire movement. In measures 54-56 the tenors have the original chant in (D) minor but the basses and baritones are outlining a (BbM) chord which is the relative of (Dm). What is also unusual to chant tradition is the alto drone on the (D) hovering above. The only aspect of these parts that stay true with the original chant form are the tenors but the rest seem to be straying away from the style as if foreshadowing something very different. When the music reaches measures 57 and 58 is where Rachmaninov makes his mark. In measure 57 a variation of the Dm melody is used in the tenors while all the other parts are outlining Dm. Then in 58, FM is introduced purely for the first time. What makes this so remarkable within the work is that Rachmaninov uses chant melodies that outline a more Romantic styled chord progression. It begins with (BbM) which is (IV), then reaching (vi). And then in measure 58, a (V7) to I occurs which has never happened before in the 9th movement. The text reads, “Glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let us worship the Father, with the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[19] The text reads a joyous statement in the story where the women bearing spices realize that Christ has risen. Rachmaninov seemed to see this as good news as well considering how the music evokes a more solidified chord progression. The rhythm as well also accelerates and the majority of the parts are homophonic apart from the Alto drone. This segment is also where Rachmaninov started quoting the Vespers in the Symphonic Dances starting from measure 54 all the way to measure 81.

Measures 54-56:                                                 Measures 57-58:


When the music arrives to measure 59 the tenors split with the first tenors having the melody which they have until measure 61. The rest of the parts outline the key of (FM) keeping a simple chord progression of (I-IV-V-I). What makes this little segment distinctive is the voice leading. Both tenors and baritones consistently move by stepwise motion. The bass twos however, typically jump no more than a perfect fifth at the end of cadences. This is Rachmaninov reverting back to the Znamennyïy chant styled writing he has presented before but in FM as opposed to be in Dm in the past. As discussed previously, Rachmaninov displayed the ancient chant Tone form but here he uses the Prokeimenon style exclusively in the tenor and bass parts. However, what is untraditional about this segment is yet again the Alto drone, but not a typical traditional drone as seen previously. Here the alto drone moves and pauses giving a more harmonic purpose than any normal drone would have. For example, in measure 60 the alto line moves from F to E to F in one swoop. While the Alto moves to the E the other parts are outline a (V) chord in (FM) which means the Alto serves as the Seventh of the chord until going back to (I). This isn’t a typical chant form which implies that Rachmaninov is once again displaying his own interpretation.

In measures 62-67 the altos join the homophonic part writing while the sopranos finally join in but serving as a drone. Same with the altos who served as drone previously, the soprano drone untraditionally moves harmonically in accordance to cadential points. What makes this selection unique is the sudden modulation to A minor in measure 63. One can assume that Rachmaninov is using the modulatory movement to symbolize the change in story within the text. The text reads “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth as it is and shall be ever, world without end. Amen. Thou, O Holy Virgin, bringing forth the Lord, ransomedst Adam,…[21] This serves as the beginning of the celebratory anthem has been working towards the climax. As for the type of writing presented, Rachmaninov sticks to the chant style writing. However, he breaks a couple of voice leading rules in accordance to chant homophonic part writing with the basses for only a select few times. Currently, all parts, apart from the sopranos, are split and voiced close together exemplifying the traditional chant homophonic voice leading. What also is evident is text painting used by the altos, tenors, and basses in the first three quarter notes in measure 62. The word “Holy” is repeated three times by all the parts listed, but the chord it is represented by can only be the doing of Rachmaninov’s style. This chord being a (Gmin7) chord with a Major (9th) featured in the top alto line. The notation also explicitly mentions that the word “Holy” should be emphasized heavily, each time within this phrase exemplifying text painting.

Measure 62: Measures 63-65:

Measures 66-67:


Amongst the numerous issues that were occurring during the time Rachmaninov wrote the All-Night Vigil, the internal struggle within the Russian government was the most difficult for him. He loved his country and above all its music. Especially considering the incredible amount of Russian nostalgic themes written in his much later works during his residency in the United States. Rachmaninov’s pure intention in writing  the All-Night Vigil was to pay homage to both the rich tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church and the times he spent with his mother attending services as a child. He of course gave his own interpretation of the chant itself, but by implementing both the ancient melodies and his own made this work, not only elegant in nature, but incredibly reflective of his childhood. Although the work was not popular in his time, it is no wonder that the All-Night Vigil has gained the merit it has deserved for almost a hundred years. Rachmaninov’s vast knowledge of chant and his own compositional creativity made for a beautiful combination. Fueled by nostalgia, he wrote this work in two weeks. Although it is up for personal opinion and not by any means factual, in writing this work in two weeks only highlights Rachmaninov’s genius. What is not up for debate is the fact that the All-Night Vigil has stayed the test of time and perhaps will for much longer.


All-Night Vigil, Op.37 (Rachmaninoff, Sergei) (- IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music),_Op.37_(Rachmaninoff,_Sergei)

Choral Arts. “Sergei Rachmaninoff Vespers, Op. 37: Transliteration and Translation .” . (accessed March 25, 2014).

Cowen, Vladimir. Interview by author. Personal interview. , July 3, 2010.

Drillock, David. “Tutorial for learning the Tones .” . (accessed April 11, 2014).

Geoffrey Norris. “Rachmaninoff, Serge.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 8, 2014,

Mellers, Wilfred. Celestial Music? Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music. Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2002.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Rachmaninoff’s Music Under Ban of the Soviet ,” April 3, 1931, 28.

Sylvester, Richard D.. Rachmaninoff’s complete songs: a companion with texts and translations. (Indianapolis : Indiana University Press, 2014), 234-258.


[1] Vroon, Harrington, Koob, Greenfield, and Parsons. 2010. (“Rachmaninoff.” American Record Guide 73), no. 6: 43-62, The work itself is considered to be very popular today but in accordance to the amount of recordings and performances today in comparison to the time the All-Night Vigil was written gives evidence that work wasn’t that popular back then.

[2] Wilfrid Mellers, Celestial Music?: Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music (Suffolk: Mellers, 2002), Wilfred Mellers’s gives an in depth description of the liturgical context of the All-Night Vigil

[3] Geoffrey Norris. “Rachmaninoff, Serge.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press,, discusses his influences in detail as well as his teachers of composition and chant.

[4] Ibid. Gives the historical context of the time in which Rachmaninov lived in.

[5] Sylvester, Richard D.. Rachmaninoff’s complete songs: a companion with texts and translations. (Indianapolis : Indiana University Press, 2014), 234-258 Rachmaninov and his family first fled to Russia’s neighboring countries before arriving to America in 1918.

[6] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Rachmaninoff’s Music Under Ban of the Soviet ,” April 3, 1931, 28, discusses America’s perspective on the new found ban of Rachmaninov’s music in 1931.

[7] Cowen, Vladimir. Interview by author. Personal interview. , July 3, 2010, Vladimir Ashkenazy is considered one of the greatest interpreters of Rachmaninov’s music. He also lived in Russia during the ban of Rachmaninov’s music to which he witnessed the performance and illegal recording of the All-Night Vigil.

[8 ] Mellers, Wilfred. Celestial Music? Some Masterpieces of European Religious Music. Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2002

[9] Drillock, David. “Tutorial for learning the Tones .”. (accessed April 11, 2014). Obikhod chant originated from certain canonical chants and their variants that were used frequently in parish churches, monasteries, and etc.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] Choral Arts. “Sergei Rachmaninoff Vespers, Op. 37: Transliteration and Translation

[13]  Drillock, David. “Tutorial for learning the Tones .”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.