Rachmaninoff’s Music for the Divine Liturgy

The Royal Doors before the altar

In the mid-1990s, I first encountered the Hyperion recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s (1873-1943) arrangement for the Divine Liturgy. I was immediately struck by its beauty. Normally, I prefer listening to chant in English, but this recording of the Church Slavonic text of the Divine Liturgy was indescribably beautiful and it has become one of my favorite recordings.

The story behind how this arrangement came to be made is quite fascinating. It was composed in the early 20th century and only performed a couple of times before it was nearly lost for over 70 years. Rachmaninoff had received a blessing from Russian Church officials to prepare an arrangement of the Divine Liturgy. However, when it was presented to them in 1910 (this before the Russian Revolution), they rejected it, citing a modernist feeling to the composition. Rachmaninoff abandoned the project and his composition was later lost in the communist Soviet Union.  Wikipedia explains how Rachmaninoff’s composition was reconstructed in the 1980s when copies of the music text were found in an Orthodox monastery in the USA.

As chronicled in the PBS documentary “Rediscovering Rachmaninoff”, in the last years of the Soviet era an American choir toured Russia and Ukraine performing the newly reconstructed arrangement by Rachmaninoff to sell-out crowds. Before the American choir returned home, Russian Church officials asked the choir to sing Rachmaninoff’s arrangement for the Divine Liturgy, served by the Patriarch at Trinity Cathedral in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

A clip from “Rediscovering Rachmaninoff”:

Further information on the history of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement, along with full text, can be found at the Hyperion site. The full liner notes (in PDF format) can be downloaded under “view sleeve notes/artwork.”

Here are a some selections from Rachmaninoff’s arrangement from various choirs:

Beginning of Divine Liturgy: The Great Litany:

Bless the Lord, O My Soul:

Glory to the Father….Only-Begotten Son:

Cherubic Hymn:

Our Father…Lord’s Prayer:

A Mercy of Peace:

We Praise Thee:

We Praise Thee:  (another version)

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