Brilliant Songs #26: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo”

We’re into our annual holiday music mode, our surroundings suffused with traditional Christmas carols and pop songs saluting the season. Little drummer boys going pa rum pum pum pum, sleigh bells jingle-ing, ring-ting tingle-ing, oh, but we have a merry time gliding through the malls and filling our baskets with impossibly packaged toys that resist penetration with all the impregnable fortitude of Fort Knox, do we not?

But amidst all the commercial ballyhoo, there lies a more contemplative dimension: that of a sacred inwardness, a bow to darkened days, the denuded trees and grayed skies of winter, with its incipient if distant promise of renewal.

In much of the world, the symbol of this promise revolves around a child born in a manger to a poor couple, a special star appearing in the sky to note this birth was destined to transform the world. (Wait: doesn’t every birth do that?) (Oh! Could that be the message??)

The Russian composer, conductor and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (pictured to the right) addressed that scene in the 6th song of his epic choral work, “All Night Vigil,” paying homage to the Christ-child’s mother, the venerated Virgin Mary.

Unlike most other entries in this “Brilliant Songs” series, “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O Virgin”) is sparse on lyrics, based as it is on one of the world’s more frequently enunciated prayers, the “Hail Mary.”

But lyrics matter hardly at all when the music itself sets a tone combining such beautiful heavenly rapture with solemnity to which even the most secularized modernists would feel compelled to bow their heads, and at the very least embrace an inner quietude that I would submit is no less sacred than the most devout prayer.

Let’s treat ourselves now to three minutes and nineteen seconds of that beauty before returning for some discussion.



Rachmaninoff, as abundantly evidenced above, is a paragon of the Romantic era and author of arguably the most soaring and lush melodies in music history. He had been steeped in the Orthodox religious tradition of his homeland, courtesy of his maternal grandmother, who had stepped in to guide the six siblings’ religious development after his father squandered the prosperous estate bequeathed by the maternal grandparents. He then abandoned the family, though his 10-year-old son Sergei had already shown signs of the musical brilliance that would in time pay off with patrons to help support his studies.

Although Rachmaninoff professed no particular religious affiliation by his adult years, the church bells and liturgical chants his grandmother exposed him to in his childhood never stopped resounding through him.

His Second Piano Concerto in particular (previously blogged about here) and Second Symphony had vaulted him to worldwide acclaim in the early 1900s, and by 1915 he had turned his attention to the ancient chants and choral works that had grown from them among a host of Russian composers led by Tchaikovsky.

This was to be music, wrote one of that group, the composer Alexander Kastalsky, “that can be heard nowhere else but in a church.”

And also be expressed through no other instrument than the human voice.

Though the 15 parts of “All Night Vigil” vary widely in content (and are all more than worth a listen in their own right, see below), what unites them are lush harmonies and dynamics that build up and down from the quietly sublime to the soaring and triumphant.

We hear most of this range in “Bogoroditse Devo,” which begins in a tone of solemn adoration in the low ranges, the singers careful in their restraint and closely eyeing the conductor. This gives way near the two-minute mark to an unleashing of emotion and energy suggesting an ocean wave that crests, tumbles and slowly trickles its way to shore, its rivulets of sound finally coming to their rest.

“Blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” concludes the prayer/lyrics. “Thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.”

Whatever any given individual interprets and believes about that, if we survey the centrality of music throughout recorded history, it’s hard to argue with how ubiquitously it transforms, consoles, inspires, informs, and yes, saves our so-very-human lives.

And how in the hands of a master such as Rachmaninoff, it transports us to a place we know in our bones to be our deepest and most true feeling of kinship with all that is, and has ever been.

The entire 59-minute cycle…


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10 comments to Brilliant Songs #26: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Bogoroditse Devo”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I always enjoy reading and listening to your “Brilliant Songs” entries because they’re so informative and often works I’m unfamiliar with like “Bogoroditse Devo”. Russian music in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries is remarkably creative and innovative. Tchaikovsky unquestionably altered the manner in which Russian composers approached composition, particularly in its symphonic form. Prior to Tchaikovsky, movements within Russian symphonies were generally independent of one another. It bothered him. He wanted to create musical works which carried a single theme or melody across the entire piece. He noted it worked pretty well for a guy named Beethoven. Tchaikovsky wrote, “Write a theme and bring it back over and over again so people learn to love it.” It worked for him, and it worked for Rachmaninov, too. Of course, few, if any, possessed their talent or ear for beautiful melodies. What I love about Russian classical music in the early years of the 20th century is its diversity. Stravinsky and Shostakovich lived alongside the likes of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Great music all!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      You’re right about the power of repeating melodic themes, Robert, and it’s a strategy that is all the more effective when one can melodize (don’t look for that word in the dictionary!) as beautifully as Rachmaninov. (I actually prefer that spelling, but the double “ff” seems to have become the more official U.S. version upon his request when he immigrated here in 1917.) Glad you enjoy this series; if it adds up to half as much as I enjoy doing it, I’m a happy man. Hard to beat spending days and weeks reading about, listening to, and thinking along with the likes of Rachmaninoff and all the other brilliant creators under discussion here.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Listening to, and watching, the Bogoroditse Devo performance took me back to your previous post on the spirituality, religious language tightrope. The angelic voices, soothing and soulful composition, and the faces of those performing struck me as a confluence of religion and spirituality evoking peacefulness, compassion, goodness, and the space to reflect and “contain” the many forces at play in the human experience.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yeah, where does the spirituality end and religion begin (or vice versa) when a choir brings forth these universal emotional and aesthetic responses with the power that they do? My own definition of what is religious tends toward the elastic, and when people jokingly refer to a Springsteen concert or a World Series game as a “religious experience,” I usually take them much more seriously than perhaps they do themselves. I’ve got a lot more thinking to do on this matter, I can tell. Stay tuned!

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:

    One of my favorite movie themes and movie (Somewhere in Time) was based on his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, written by John Barry. From there, I was led to the Moviola album(s). His themes are spectacularly melodic, and for me, especially evocative.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, that’s quite lush & gorgeous, Gerry, thanks. Pretty sure I saw that movie a long time ago, now that I saw the trailer. Also reminded me of “Out of Africa” music, which I just saw again recently, then read on to see Barry composed that, too. He surely listened to a lot of Rachmaninoff!

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing the gift of this soulful creation. Appropriate to the season, expresion of both somber and elation connected to the Divine, is the touchstone that is a path to the concept, ” We are all One.” During these strained times we are living through, it is a shot in the arm. (Chuckle, chuckle)
    To you all, Happy Holidays whatever your connection to Spirit and importantly,…Peace on Earth, Good Wiil to All Wo-Men.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      “Somberness and elation” is a pretty good summation of things, Marianne, could be God’s very own slogan, the brand of all brands…

      Very glad you enjoyed this, thanks for keeping up with and contributing to this conversation over the years!

  • Harriet  says:

    Thank you, Andrew. I savored every note. I also loved seeing the rapture in the faces of the singers.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Have never done so, but singing in a choir has always struck me as just a boatload of fun & fellowship, and choir members I have asked about it have always affirmed it for me in spades. Some are certainly more expressive and joyful on stage than others, but we can also see the quiet version of the rapture you speak of in even the more serious among them. Thanks for catching this detail, Harriet.

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