In high school, my friend and I spent a lot of time at a place called The Forest Hill Bridge. Sometimes his girlfriend was with us, sometimes mine, sometimes it was just the two of us. Normally it was at night which meant there wasn't a whole lot to see from the bridge but you could hear the thin river many hundreds of feet below.
Josh is a bass and I sang tenor and many times when there wasn't much else to say we would break out into song. Sometimes it was songs that we learned in high school or church. More often than not it was "Under the Boardwalk" whch was funny because not only were we not on a boardwalk, we weren't even under a bridge.
Actually the really funny part was that we didn't even know all the words! We had learned it from listening to a "Do-it A cappella" CD and while Josh had his words down pat ("Thum, Thum-Thum... Under the Boardwaolk...etc.) I would get to the second verse and start sing "Wheels turning Round and round..." and make some stuff up from there until we knew we had to start over.
We were very democratic singers whomever was with us, no matter how good or bad of a singer, always got a part and we loved to hear our voices bounce back and forth off the canyon walls. There is nothing like a little reverb to make one think they are a great singer. Too much fun.
There really is very little point in taking you on my little trip down (or in this case "under") memory lane except to tell you Josh was a good bass, but WOW! wait 'til you hear these basses.
The "All Night Vigil" more famously known as Vespers that Rachmaninoff wrote is for the Russian Orthodox Church All Night Vigil ceremony.
The Vespers may very well be Rachmaninoff's greatest work. As you know, I LOVE his piano pieces but for pure emotion and power the Vespers are second to none. Let me express it to you this way. The two pieces of music that help me feel closer to God, Himself, are Handel's "Messiah" and these Vespers.
This particular one (no.5) is special to me me because it not only has a beautiful tenor solo, but it really emphasizes those slavic Russian basses. (I wonder how it would sound on the Forest Hill Bridge Josh?)
The name of this movement translated into English is "Now Let Thy Servant Depart." You can kind of guess the theme by the title and the fact that Rachmaninoff, himself, wanted this piece sung at his funeral.
The text is from Luke 2:29-32 which is the story of Simeon, a devout Jew who was promised he would not die before seeing the Son of God. The piece starts with the upper voices literally sounding like angels moving back and forth between chords, welcoming the soul. A single tenor sings in Russian roughly, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.... according to thy word." etc. It is surreal and beautiful.
The sopranos add a secondary melody to the tenor solo as the heavenly choir continues to help guide him through the shadow of death.
The basses and tenors come in adding depth and "reality" to the heavenly state of the man. Then, the climax, when everyone realizes they are past the point of no return. For me it is like a jumping off the edge of waterfall, the roar is overwelming until you hit that deep, clear water... silence.
Rachmaninoff thought it was crucial for a performer to understand where the climax of a piece is and he needed to build all aspects of the performance around that single moment. His compositions reflect that same sentiment.
It's the women again, gently guiding their new heavenly guest towards the Kingdom.
The rest of the choir comes in and finishes what we, as mortals, can view of this man's journey. As the choir fades into the realm of spirits, the basses come in and they just keep going down, down, down. You think they are at the bottom and they keep going for another octave as if to both protect their new soul from any more earthly influences and also to remind us, as the living, that this same journey for us is inevitable.
When Rachmaninoff was asked where he would find basses to sing this he said, "I know the voices of my countrymen..."
He also knew the voices of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers who provided this recording. They have the definitive recording for this piece. It has every element of a great performance. Maybe they will be available to sing this at my funeral in 50-60 years. : )
I went into a lot more detail than I normally would, but I hope that maybe it inspires someone to listen to all of the Vespers. It is one proof for Jesus' saying that man must not live by bread alone... because this is a feast for the soul.