HANOVER, NH—The Dartmouth College Glee Club focuses its spring concert on one of the defining choral works of the 20th century, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. The concert takes place on Sunday, May 1, 2 pm, in Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel.
It’s a mark of the ensemble’s excellence that it is performing the entire work, and without guest vocalists—even for the transcendent solo parts and the deep, dark basso profundo notes, said Glee Club Director Louis Burkot. The group performed one movement of the work—the meltingly beautiful Bogoro Ditsye Dyevo (“Ave Maria”)—during a December concert tour of the Madrid region of Spain.
The Glee Club sings “Bogoro Ditsye Dyevo” in Catedral Magistral in Alcala de Henares, Spain, during its December concert tour. Video by Maria Laskaris.
Written and premiered in 1915, the Vigil consists of settings of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox all-night vigil ceremony, which is celebrated on the eves of Sundays and of major liturgical feasts. The texts have also been set to music by Tchaikovsky and numerous lesser-known Russian composers, but it’s Rachmaninoff’s that has truly stood the test of time, considered by scholars to be that composer’s finest achievement and the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was one of Rachmaninoff’s two favorites of his own compositions, and the composer requested that its fifth movement (Nunc Dimittis, also Song of Simeon or Canticle of Simeon from the second chapter of Biblical New Testament Book of Luke) be sung at his funeral.
Rachmaninoff composed the All-Night Vigil in less than two weeks in January and February 1915, when Russia was deeply embroiled in the First World War. As NPR music critic Tom Manoff said in a 2006 piece about a recording of the work, the composer “had just spent a year touring cities in support of Russian troops, and the sense of spiritual transcendence in the All-Night Vigil was the composer’s response to the chaos and suffering around him.”
Rachmaninoff left czarist Russia in 1917, Manoff said, “as his homeland ended one era of suffering only to begin another. He considered the All-Night Vigil one of his finest works, and in his will, asked that it be sung at his funeral and that he be buried in Moscow. That didn’t happen.” Never able to return home, the composer died in 1943 in Beverly Hills, CA, and was buried in Westchester County, NY.
Notably, Rachmaninoff had long since stopped attending church services when he composed his Vigil. Nonetheless, he had remained deeply interested in Russian sacred music and, in composing the work, took care to follow the church’s requirement it be based heavily on the chants, or simple melodies the text was traditionally sung to. However, his setting added gorgeous and complex harmony, textural variety and polyphony.
Led by Burkot since 1981, the Glee Club offers an ever-increasing repertory spanning five centuries, and a distinguished performance history including many of the masterworks of choral-orchestral literature, fully staged opera, operettas and musicals with all-student casts, large and small a cappella works and the cherished songs of Dartmouth College. In addition to international tours to Canada, Italy, Brazil and (this past December) Spain, the Glee Club regularly tours all across the United States. They have released five CDs of choral music and performed the Brahms Requiem in Carnegie Hall in 2000.
“When we perform, we are truly one voice and that unity makes our performances special for audiences,” said Glee Club member Nikhil Arora ’16, the tenor soloist for the Vigil.