Shuddering gripped our souls as the mixed a capella choir of multiple voices burst into “Priidite, poklonimysa” – (“Come, Let Us Worship),” the first of fifteen Russian hymns of the Vespers/All Night Vigil Service, composed by Sergio Rachmaninoff in 1915. Even the floorboards of the old St. Stanislaus Koska Church in North St. Louis reverberated under our feet. We were in the presence of the Sacred.

Who was this artist who had crafted jeweled harmonies around ancient chants from the thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox liturgy, who interspersed folk songs within the fabric of these hymns, who challenged his singers toward difficult ranges—both soprano and basso profondo? What occurred in Rachmaninoff’s psyche that compelled its composition in less than two weeks? Its first performance in Moscow was a fundraiser for his beleaguered country at war with Germany in World War I.

No doubt he was also sensitive to the disturbing undercurrents that would usher in the 1917 Revolution with its decades of atrocities.

Perhaps Rachmaninoff hoped his Vespers/All Night Vigil would stay the course of evil, but it did not.

Nevertheless to quote S. L. Frank, Russian philosopher, survivor, and author of The Meaning of Life (1925), “The process of transfiguration, of illumination and deification of the world and of human souls is achieved through suffering, for suffering is…the indispensable weapon with which to overcome evil. The victory of goodness can only be achieved through suffering.”

Rachmaninoff seems to echo this truth in his Vespers/All Night Vigil. It can be experienced on YouTube.

 

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