For Alex, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil is the greatest piece of music that human voices could perform. That the year would start with this performance could only be a sign of good things to come. How could it not? The massive choral opening always made his heart leap for joy. It was at that moment, beginning with the combined power and dexterity of a hundred unaccompanied human voices, in which he could imagine a heaven; to him, it was beauty perfected and it was incomparable to anything on earth. He had read that at the first performance of it in 1915, Rachmaninoff told the singers afterward that in his dreams he could not have imagined that he could write such a work. Containing 15 movements, each one was a jewel in its own right and integral to this magnificent crowning achievement. Despite its brilliance, in just two short years after its debut this masterpiece would be left behind and hidden as the world turned upside down, only to reappear later in its full glory. Alex was always fascinated by the stories behind or that followed the creation of masterpieces or great discoveries. It seemed to him that so often the normal rules of time, effort, and result simply did not apply to the great human achievements – the things that truly change us, or a culture, or perhaps even how we understand reality. Alex was thankful for that as he took his seat close to the center of the university concert hall.
Dora’s year had been difficult, as usual, but better than the last few. Her parents remained together despite their mutually abusive dysfunction; she had tried to break free of their behavior and the constantly being asked to take sides by moving out. Some of her teachers who knew about the situation had helped her to make it through high school. At 20, she was now living with friends in town while working at a couple of part-time jobs and hoping to take classes at the local community college. Singing had always been her escape from a life that seemed bereft of anything positive. One of the teachers had spoken about her to the musical director at the university and she had been picked up as one of the community members to round out the choral society for the season. Tonight she would be singing second alto in her first concert ever outside of her high school and in a language that she had never heard of until a few months ago.
Op. 37, No.1 Come, Let Us Worship!
“Амин!” (Amin!) (Amen!), “Приидите!…” (Priiditye!) (Come!)
Alex’s breath was suspended and his eyes beamed! Rapture is the only way to describe how he felt when the vacant pause perched at the moment of anticipation was broken and filled with life by those incredible voices. He caught himself even laughing slightly to himself in joy and the notion that at 53 years old he could still feel this way in response to music. In response to anything, in fact. He was a serious, non-artistic person – at least that is how he considered himself.
Even though there had been many rehearsals, Dora herself was surprised at the life, the emotional intensity, and how the choir released the glorious entry as one. That there was a full audience in the large hall must have accounted for the difference. There was an interaction, and exchange taking place. As her lungs filled and her voice formed the sounds, she was in awe that life had brought her here because she remembered how as a child she would feel that there was nothing wonderful in life when she would curl herself up in her room at night as her parents would say and do the most horrible things possible to one another. But here she was. And she was glad.
Op. 37, No. 3 Blessed Is the Man
“Блажен муж, иже не иде на совет нечестивых” (Blazhen muzh, izhe ne ide na sovet nechestivih) (Blessed is the man, who walks not in the counsel of the wicked)
The flow and movement made him think of a light veil in a changing wind. That he was experiencing his favorite piece of music brought him happiness. How nice it would have been to share this with someone, though. But of his friends – who were mainly his coworkers and colleagues – he did not know any who would appreciate this. Certainly not as he did. They all, including Alex, were highly analytical and enjoyed the fine distinctions of their technological engineering. The rules and equations gave him comfort, most likely because as a young man he recalled reading that some things are not only laws – that which ought to be obeyed; but facts – something that obeys and is obeyed. This was without question, true. And that was something he could rely on.
“Аллилуйиа, аллилуйиа, аллилуйиа” (Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia)
She loved this movement for its undulating volume and its simplicity combined with cascading repetition. When she first began to learn the music she found out it had been written by a famous Russian composer, and she had assumed the language it would be sung in was Russian not knowing that liturgical music was written in the chanting language of Church Slavonic. She had heard some of the other singers talking about Russian music and literature and she overheard a phrase that supposedly one writer had once used, that “Beauty will save the world.” She didn’t know what to make of that. From what she had seen in her life, neither beauty nor ugliness would have any effect on the world. It just was what it was. There was only so much that one could do about it. “Аллилуйиа, аллилуйиа, аллилуйиа” (Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia)
Op. 37, No. 4 Gladsome Light
“Свете тихий” (Svete tihiy) (Gladsome Light)
As the basses sang the (videvshe svet vecherniy) (and behold the light of evening), he thought how he had done things right. He had not been like his father who, as his mother had told him, was a good-for-nothing. Alex had been good for something. He had made sure that he would never be like his father, the man he remembered that would occasionally come and visit him but always seemed distracted, unreliable and poor. He had been a failure, and Alex would not be. He had studied hard and was successful, and that was important. It meant a lot.
Op. 37, No. 7 The Six Psalms
She was loving this. The gorgeous alto part of the movement occasionally complemented by the low basses required particular expressive effort. And she could do that. She felt it and heard the wonderous sounds coming from her. And she could block out the fact that her parents were offered seats but would not be in the audience, and that her boyfriend was upset that she was doing this because of the amount of time it had kept her busy and that she wasn’t even being paid. He thought it would be better if she sang in his friend’s band because maybe they would hit it big. He was glad this would finally be done.
Op. 37, No. 12 The Great Doxology
“Слава в вышних Богу, и на земли мир” (Slava v vishnih Bogu, i na zemli mir) (Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace)
As the longest movement began, he was thinking about how his life had gone. Yes, he was alone, but it was not his fault. He had done the right things. He could not help the mistakes others had made nor could he account for what in life is simply fate. We can only control ourselves; we can not control others. What about those times when he could have said something, or have done something differently? Well, of course, we can look back at those times and wonder. But, what was the truth about that situation, what were the facts? He had thought about them a lot sometimes, and the more he thought the more he was convinced he had done the right thing. He had been in the right. He could not argue with one fact though, and that was – the result. He was alone. Regardless of how right he had been in all he had done – he was alone. And he looked around at the others and wondered why it was that many of them were not. Perhaps, for him, it was because he was not attractive or outgoing enough. He knew that he did not have the sense of humor that most people find attractive. Clearly, it had simply been the way things worked out.
She concentrated on the changes in the movement. Articulating the words and carefully following the changes in volume and trying to stay precisely with the other altos. She knew she was good, very good. But she also knew she was not great. Her voice would not be her ticket out of here. That question, the future, weighed on her daily. What would be her liberation from here; or would there be none? It seemed to her that the future loomed long and grey. But the thoughts could not compete with the music that was living through her. It told her to wait, to stay in this moment. And she imagined staying right here and never leaving, because this is heaven. This is protection, and safety, and loveliness, and beauty. This music, these words…. But they keep moving and won’t let her stay.
Op. 37, No. 14 Troparion: Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb
“Воскрес из гроба и узи растерзал еси ада!” (Voskres iz groba i uzi rasterzal yesi ada!) (Thou didst rise from the tomb and burst the bonds of Hades!)
He wondered, as the slow methodic Troparion filled the hall, how people are able to live life so differently than he did, to see things so differently. Don’t the same facts apply to them as well? How could simply different circumstances account for such variation in perspective? And he looked at the choir members and how intently they were living into the music. They were feeling the facts of the musical score. Was there something he wasn’t understanding? Music is in fact a mathematical expression – but here it was in the flesh, incarnate, and he could not deny that it was not bound by the strictness of numerical formulaics. Yes, of course, but that is just how music is. There was something here. This was something mathematical, and factual, and true. But that is not the end. It doesn’t end there….
Op. 37, No. 15 To Thee, the Victorious Leader
“Взбранной воеводе победителная” (Vzbrannoy voyevode pobeditelnaya) (To Thee, the victorious Leader of triumphant hosts)
Just before the final movement, she realized that in a little less than two minutes her part in this would be done, and she would return to her normal life and all of what that meant. She had been thankful for the opportunity to have played a part in this, but it was ending. As the vibrant piece began, however, she continued to marvel to herself at the beauty of these voices that had surrounded her throughout. And she came to a full understanding that her voice was integral to this; she had not only a voice, but it was her voice, and a voice in this. And she realized that 95 years ago, someone inspired had written this amazing work for people to sing, and that these many years later she had helped bring it to life. It had lept from the silent page of history, through her and into reality. And with each syllable of the thundering final line, she felt and knew that the words and music were alive – and they were alive because she sang them:
Raduysia! Ne-ve—-sto Nene–ve——st-na—ya—–!
(Rejoice! O unwedded Bride!)
The audience was immediately at its feet.
And he wanted to cry, but he couldn’t.
And she wanted to cry, but she couldn’t, because if anything in her life would have a beautiful end, this would be beautiful.
He had read somewhere that a fact is something that obeys and ought to be obeyed.
And she had heard somewhere that beauty will save the world.