During my first 24 years of life in the Soviet Russia, having studied classical music and its history at a full-time music school for eight years, I had no idea about the existence of the Vespers or any other sacred music by any other composer whatsoever! This is how well this information was locked away from public eye in the Soviet Union.
We talked about how Christianity was brought to Russia almost two millennia ago, its liturgy, primarily by St. John Chrysostom, entirely in song (June 29). Though Rachmaninov avoided affiliation with the established church, he was not an irreligious man and church music and ritual were powerful influences on his life. "Vespers" is an English translation of the original Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, literally "All-Night Vigil," music for a night-long service celebrated in Russian monasteries and, on the eves of holy days, in Russian Orthodox churches.(Link to blog post with musical clip below)
The text contains Russian Orthodox versions of Latin hymns familiar to Westerners, including the Gloria in excelsis, Ave Maria, the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. As in the Latin Vespers service, the source of most of the text is the Book of Psalms and the Gospels. Several sections come from age-old Znamenny chants, traditional monophonic songs known from the first consistently identifiable znamenniy (signs) by which Russian sacred music was notated, the chants dating back at least to the fifteenth century and probably earlier. Others are based on what the Russian church calls Greek chant, a seventeenth-century refinement involving the use of one-note recitatives and simple melismas. Two are traditional Kiev chants, with music alternating, in the style of Ukrainian folk music, between recitative and melodic parts. Finally, two songs are designated as troparia, examples of an ancient type of poetic invocation used in Eastern and Russian Orthodox services. (Nick Jones)
Rachmaninov wrote the Vespers in 1915 when at the height of his powers at age 42 according to the church tradition of unaccompanied voices. After his escape from the revolution in 1917 with his family on an open sled to Helsinki, he felt that he had lost some of his creativity. He became a touring virtuoso pianist playing is own compositions (like "Rach 1, 2, and 3" concertos), and living in Hollywood, probably experiencing new kinds of All-Night Vigils.
Notes: This concert will NOT last all night! Inna Lobanova-Heasley's lovely blog post is here.