Easter is by far the biggest church festival in Russia – more so than Christmas, perhaps because the harsh conditions of Russian life, particularly for the peasants, meant that the arrival of Spring and the hope of renewal and eventually, resurrection, were really something worth celebrating. It’s the one church festival that still resonates in secular modern life; banners hang from lampposts proclaiming that Christ is Risen, many people keep Lent strictly by eating no meat, and the churches are packed full to bursting for the beginning of the All Night Vigil although not so many make it through to then end of the long service.
During our concert, we’ll have four short readings describing Russian Easter celebrations; here’s a bit of background to set the scene.
Traditionally, the All-Night Vigil is preceded by a grand procession, with banners and icons being paraded around the town or village, ending at the church. The procession itself represents the journey that the women made through the garden to the tomb on Easter morning, with the church taking the role of the empty tomb. The myrrhbearing women, as they are known in the Orthodox church, are particularly revered, and their story marks the climax of the Easter vigil music. It comes in the ninth movement, Blagosloven yesi Gospodi; the text tells the story three times, slightly varying it on each repeat to emphasise, and Rachmaninov’s music is intensely moving throughout this section, particularly the lovely tenor line singing the voice of the angel.
The faithful gather in the darkened church, and at midnight the everyone lights candles and exchanges the Easter greeting “Christ is Risen”, “He is risen indeed”, the doors in the icon-screen to the church sanctuary are thrown open, and the Vespers service then begins. Although in English, Rachmaninov’s setting for the vigil service is often known as “Vespers” (and we have called it that to avoid confusion, although the Russian words on our poster give the work its full title, “All-Night Vigil”), the vespers part in fact ends at movement six – Bogoroditise Devo – the Hail Mary, probably the best-known movement as it’s often performed at Christmas.
The service then continues with Matins, with long passages of psalms and Bible readings stretching the service out through the night. The night ends with the Gloria and three Resurrection hymns – in Rachmaninov’s setting you can feel the first beams of Easter sunlight breaking above the skyline in the quietly radiant rising phrases at the beginning of each. Then it’s time to celebrate with traditional Russian paskha – a rich cheesy cake, baked in a mould with the letters ХВ (the Russian letter for Khristos Voskres – Christ is Risen) – and of course painted eggs.