The Hidden Life of Liturgical Chant in Rachmaninoff’s Music

Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is one of the most beloved composers of all time. His intensely beautiful and lyrical pieces such as his Second Piano Concerto, Second Symphony, and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini are still some of the most recognizable and moving works in the classical canon. Filled with yearning, nostalgia, and melodic searching for the Russia in which he grew up and from which he later lived in self-imposed exile after the Russian Revolutions of 1917, these pieces have a unique voice and power, even today. Why is this music so incredibly affecting among audiences more accustomed to the latest trends in pop music and rock than to the sound of a symphony or piano concerto? There is no single answer to that question. However, I think that examining how spirituality and the music of the Orthodox Church influenced Rachmaninoff’s works will help reveal why they remain so moving and resonant. In fact, I argue that understanding and fully appreciating Rachmaninoff’s music is impossible if we do not know a little bit about the Church. Rachmaninoff himself said, “the sound of church bells dominated all the cities of Russia I used to know…They accompanied every Russian from childhood to grave, and no composer could escape their influence.”[1] Although Rachmaninoff specifically mentions the influence of church bells, I will look at a few of his pieces to show how a little knowledge of the Church and its equally prominent liturgical chant can provide a more nuanced appreciation of these works[2].

One particularly striking quality of Rachmaninoff’s music is the importance of the fourth note of a given musical scale (the note, “fa” in the familiar song “Do, A Deer” from The Sound of Music), known as the subdominant. What is strange about the importance of the subdominant is that in basically all Western music from about 900 AD through today, the emphasis is on the fifth scale degree, the dominant. The motion 5-1 (the movement from either the fifth note of a scale to the first note, or from a chord built on the fifth note to the tonic chord built on the first note of the scale) is what gives music a sense of closure and finality. 5-1 indicates a progression from tension and motion to stasis and rest, an arrival home. Well, Rachmaninoff never arrived back home after his self-imposed exile from Russia, and his nostalgia for his native country permeates his music. The 4-1 motion in his music allowed Rachmaninoff to express his unfulfilled longing to return to Russia. This motion is especially evident in his use of his signature chord (an extended subdominant chord blended with the dominant), which he resolves to the 1-chord, the tonic. It isn’t that he didn’t use the interval 5-1 in his music: if he did not, his music would likely have fallen into obscurity because our ears have a natural desire for the sound of musical closure provided by the 5-1 motion. What is significant is how dramatically more important the motion of 4-1 is in his music than in the music other composers or songwriters. In fact, Peabody music theorist and one of the world’s leading Rachmaninoff scholars, Dr. Ildar Khannanov, calls Rachmaninoff the “Poet of the Subdominant.” He vividly displays this poetic handling of the subdominant in the beginning of his famous Piano Concerto no. 2. The piece is in the stormy key of C minor, which is where the main theme begins when the orchestra enters. However, the piano’s deeply introspective introduction is in F minor, the subdominant. As Dr. Khannanov points out, every other composer puts the introduction in the same key as what is formally the main part of the piece, but Rachmaninoff dramatically begins in the subdominant key instead. In doing so, his transition to C minor already contains a feeling of restless longing.

Those details about the subdominant might be interesting but it may not seem relevant to our exploration of the influence of the Church on Rachmaninoff’s music. In order to see the connection, we need to look at some other music, and the first musical matter we will examine is the Orthodox liturgical chant tradition, particularly the ancient chant of the Znammeni tradition. Few people realize the impact of Christianity on the development of music. Beyond the fact that monks developed our current musical notation and that the origins of “classical music” are sacred and liturgical music, there is the much subtler legacy of the Church in music in nearly every style and genre. That legacy begins with liturgical chant.

The mention of chant probably evokes thoughts of Gregorian chant and monks singing in Latin. Gregorian chant is actually the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional style of singing. In part, its legacy is the musical primacy of the dominant. The monks who came up with Gregorian chant decided, for several historical reasons, to base their music on the octave, the interval from say “c” to the next “c” on a piano (or from do to the higher do in “Do, a Deer”). They divided the octave into two tetrachords (groups of four consecutive notes) a whole step apart. The interval from the first note of the first tetrachord to the first note of the second tetrachord is a perfect fifth. Thus the first and the fifth notes are the most important two notes in Gregorian chant, and in turn, Western music. However, in Orthodox Znamenni chant, the “scale,” called the Obkihod scale is made up of trichords (groups of three consecutive notes). The interval between each trichord is a perfect fourth. Consequently, the fourth plays an enormous role in Znamenni chant. The unique importance of the fourth scale degree in Rachmaninoff’s music resembles its role in Znamenni and other Orthodox liturgical chants.

Perhaps you’re wondering if the importance Rachmaninoff places on the subdominant throughout his music is coincidental and not at all related to the importance of the fourth scale degree in Znamenni chant. We need to see if there are other more obvious aspects of Rachmaninoff’s music which come from liturgical chant. The most well-known and well-loved aspect of his music is its usually long, and haunting melodies. As shall see, these quite recognizably have the small intervals and the same vocal qualities that we find in Znamenni chant. These are the traits which give the melodies much of their expressive power. Clearly then, Orthodox liturgical chant had a major impact on Rachmaninoff’s music, especially on its most famous aspect, its heartfelt melodies.

One reason that Orthodox chant played such a role in Rachmaninoff’s works is the fact that at the time of his childhood and early adulthood, the Russian Orthodox Church had an enormous hold on culture, and indeed on every part of daily life. That means that Rachmaninoff grew up hearing various styles of Orthodox liturgical chant in his home, on the streets, and even in a sense in popular folk music.[3] Yet in the music of all Rachmaninoff’s most famous contemporaries, however, there is not the same melodic or harmonic influence of chant. The reason why Rachmaninoff’s music shows this influence begins with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was the first non-Church composer in Russia to compose his own music for the Russian Orthodox mass. In order to do so, he had to win a long legal battle to break the official Church composer’s monopoly on writing music for mass and worship[4]. Once Tchaikovsky did, however, the door was open for other composers to write liturgical music, even though they had to use some traditional chants[5]. Many composers did exactly that, but few of the major Russian composers spent much time on liturgical music. Tchaikovsky himself, I believe, was too influenced by the West to regularly make use in his orchestral compositions of the chant styles he became familiar with while composing his liturgical music. Rachmaninoff, always inspired by the elder Tchaikovsky, also decided to try his hand at liturgical music, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he found something very affecting about it, and after studying chant in depth, he composed a significant amount for the Church.

By far the most famous example of Rachmaninoff’s liturgical music is his All-Night Vigil, arguably the greatest, most beautiful setting of Orthodox liturgical texts by a modern composer. In this piece, Rachmaninoff draws upon centuries of Church tradition, infusing ancient chant with his own musical voice and harmony and composing several original chants so stylistically accurate that they are virtually indistinguishable from historical ones. Upon receiving approval from his former teacher, Taneyev, and the master of Russian chants, Smolensky, Rachmaninoff published the work[6]. The All-Night Vigil exemplifies both Rachmaninoff’s harmonic style and the characteristics of ancient Orthodox chant. When listening to it, you should hear many similarities between it and Rachmaninoff’s most famous instrumental melodies. Rachmaninoff’s great love for the small intervals, the long, breathless melodic lines, and for the expressive gestures of the Eastern chant traditions he used in his liturgical music like the All-Night Vigil evidently informed his melodic construction in general: these are exactly the traits which mark his beloved secular music[7]. It is important to note as well that the expressive gestures in Znamenni chant, which Rachmaninoff uses and imitates in his instrumental works, come from a very intense spirituality. In fact, Znamenni chant is filled with subtle inflections and vocal motions which have names with Christian-related origins, such as “the little dove.” The book which explains how to perform these motions and inflections gives very little in the way of an actual description of what the singer should do. It does though, for example, quote virtually every reference to doves in the Bible. The sound of “the little dove” motion must embody the essence of a biblical dove, with whatever implications it carries. This style of chant, with its musical gestures rooted in the Bible, is one of the deep origins of Rachmaninoff’s melodic style, even if such spirituality is not always his intention.

We are now armed with some basic tools to analyze the many enigmas of the music which Rachmaninoff wrote at the end of his life. These pieces do not contain the same charm and immediacy that his other works do, and they seem to contain something elusive. Part of what these works are trying to express is an even more intense desire to return to his beloved Russia, and he wrote then with a musical voice refined in Russian allusions and in orchestral techniques borrowed from jazz. But in addition to that desire, we find other qualities in these pieces. Listen to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 4 and Symphony no. 3 and compare them to his earlier pieces.

I would like to look at the very last piece Rachmaninoff wrote before he died: his Symphonic Dances. More specifically, I will discuss at the third and final dance. Rachmaninoff, seemingly well-aware that his time on earth was rapidly running, gives his final musical statement in this movement. Although it begins hesitatingly, it soon turns into a fiendish, satanic dance, taking off at breakneck speed. The first Christian element we find here is in the musical backbone, so to speak, of the dance: the Gregorian chant Dies Irae savagely intoned by the brass. This chant comes from the Latin funeral mass and it describes the horrors that await the sinful man at the Last Judgment (the title is Latin for “Day of Wrath”). The Dies Irae chant has a long history of use in classical music, where it is almost always associated with Satan, death, and eternal punishment. Rachmaninoff himself uses it to great effect in his tone poem The Isle of the Dead about the underworld. Over time, he began to use it in many of his pieces. I believe that Rachmaninoff here is using the chant both nostalgically (that is, in looking back over his own life and music containing the chant) and in view of his coming death. The frenzied dance is abruptly interrupted by a harmonically dense and wistful section, recalling the music that made him famous, which seems to be one last glimpse at the beauty of this world. As suddenly as this introspective section began, the fiendish dance and the Dies Irae return. The music seems to spiral into chaos, until the moment where Rachmaninoff writes the word “Alleluia” in the score. Here replaces the Dies Irae with part of the Znammeni chant Blagoslaven Yesi, Gospodi (Blessed be the Lord), which he used as the 9th chant in his All-Night Vigil. The chant is what the joyous angels say to the women who find Jesus’s empty tomb. This is music about the Resurrection and here, at the end of the piece and of Rachmaninoff’s life, it has conquered the wickedness of death and destruction which are embodied by the Dies Irae chant. At the end of the score, Rachmaninoff wrote, “I thank thee, Lord!” having musically shouted “Alleluia” along with the angels at the Resurrection.[8]

I hope that you’ve seen a few ways in which Christianity (specifically, Russian Orthodox chant) plays an enormous role in inspiring some of the most defining aspects of Rachmaninoff’s music. His melodic style and subdominant-based harmonic progressions in particular are derived from ancient liturgical song traditions. Though it is not accurate to say that Orthodox chant is totally responsible for Rachmaninoff’s unique musical voice, I really believe we cannot understand his music (or, for that matter any music) without understanding some of its Christian origins. Rachmaninoff captured the Christian influence on his music best when he said, “what I try to do, when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly what is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful, or bitter, or sad, or religious.”[9]


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1 Sergei Rachmaninoff A Lifetime in Music 184

2 You will not need to understand any technical terms and explanations-they are details that are in no way essential to grasping the main point of the article.

3 The relationship between Orthodox chant and Slavic folk music is incredible, but unfortunately a little beyond the scope of this article.

4 Brett Langston, Tchaikovsky Research

5 Musica Russica

6 Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Life in Music pp. 191-2

7 I recommend watching the video accompanying this article for a few selected examples which demonstrate how these traits from liturgical chant show up in his instrumental melodies, but virtually every melody shows this relationship with, for instance, the music of the All-night Vigil.

8 Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music 369 Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Life in Music by Bertensson, Leyda. NYUP, New York, 1956 Musica Russica Article: Tchaikovsky 17 July 2016. Database and research on Russian Choral music. composers/peter-tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky Research article “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” by Brett Langston 17 July 2016. Tchaikovsky Research. Net.

9 Janet E. Bedell. Program notes for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. 2014. Rachmaninoff wrote the words in the manuscript.


Ben Costello is a Junior from Ellicot City, Maryland majoring in Orchestral Conducting and Russian Literature. A connoisseur of lighthouses, he enjoys obsessively listening to and discussing the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

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