Despite the long shadow his life threw into the 20th century, the work of Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov {Серге́й Васи́льевич Рахма́нинов} stands as one of the great pinnacles of Russian Romanticism. Born in 1873 in Semyonovo (near Novgorod) in Russia and died in 1943 in Beverly Hills, California, USA, this pianist, conductor and above all, composer left behind a body of work much loved by audiences across the world. There is a richness in his musical textures and a burning lyricism that makes his works stand out.

His Cello Sonata remains one of the most difficult chamber works in the repertoire, not least because of its almost inhumanly conceived virtuosic writing. A vast landscape on a giant canvass with a choral and orchestral landscape is meant to be conjured by just two performers. One of these is a cello, which is always in danger of being drowned out by the torrents of notes from the piano. In my first performances (as pianist) of the first three movements, I felt there we achieved a passable approximation of the vision we had for this piece, and it is a particular joy to return to the Third Movement for a performance in a Mediation Programme to be performed in a Cathedral.

Why this work? Why this Movement?

It simply is one of the most hauntingly exquisite pieces of music ever written. The whole Sonata opens with a phrase which seems to call itself forth into being from some primordial mist and drive forward with immense energy and waves of power and passion, pausing in the Third Movement to reflect, gather itself around itself, and yes, MEDITATE. It calls upon images of ancient ritual, ancient wisdom, and God which it seeks, is as ancient. Bells ring in the work, either by clear recognition of the sounds or simply by implication. Monks chant an ancient language once understood by all. A Russian bass intones a solid prayer and the piano and cello weave themselves around the strands of melody in a weightless dance of ecstasy.

Bell Ringer in Novgorod, Rachmaninov's home-town

Bell Ringer in Novgorod, Rachmaninov’s home-town


The opening of the movement sets up a modal undulation, immediately setting up an inner movement of emotion. Confidence is undermined by a swing to the minor, and morbidity is sunlighted by a turn to the major. It recalls the way bells start ringing in Russian Orthodox Churches, starting softly and slowly and gaining momentum and releasing vast amounts of energy.

Here are some Bells, hand rung in Suzdal, Russia, part of the “Golden Ring of Russia”.

At first melodies are only hinted at, outlined and gradually more bells are introduced, building to an immense climax that doesn’t stop until it has run its course. Another exquisite version is available on YOUTUBE.

Albert Combrink Piano Bells


The Cello enters, and even though it plays the same bell-motif of the piano’s opening, it now takes on the quality of a voice, a priest, a prayer. It reminds so much of the Russian Orthodox Vocal music, often with a Bass or Alto soloist and chorus with deep resonant chanting underneath. This example is by Sviridov.

Rachmaninov himself wrote an exquisite setting of the Vespers. Listen to an extract here from Blagoslovi Dushe Moya Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O my soul) – Rachmaninov Opus 37 All Night Vigil (Vespers). The transcendently beautiful recording is by Klara Korkan (contralto) and the State Russian Choir directed by Alexander Sveshnikov. Before writing, Rachmaninoff had studied ancient chant under Stepan Smolensky, to whom he dedicated the piece. It is written for a four-part choir, complete with alto solo and a basso profondo. However, in many parts there is three, five, six, or eight-part harmony; at one point in the seventh movement, the choir is divided into eleven parts.{Read more about this magnificent work below, and listen to a complete recording of it}

After Sergei’s father deserted the family when he was only ten, Sergei’s maternal grandmother stepped in to help raise the children, especially focusing on their spiritual life. She regularly took Sergei to Russian Orthodox services, where he was first exposed to the liturgical chants and the church bells of the city, which would later permeate many of his compositions.

cello bell 5 Albert Combrink

Bells are at the root of so much of Rachmaninov’s music it can be seen as a defining spiritual and structural element. As recounted in The Voice OF Russia’s radio programme Russia – 1000 Years of Music  →  RACHMANINOFF AND BELL CHIMES:

“As a boy he used to spend all summer at his grandmother’s estate in the environs of the ancient Russian town of Novgorod among the lofty and severe nature of northern Russia, with its endless horizons, majestic rivers and dense woods… The young Rachmaninoff spent days in a rowing boat, doing his best to avoid dull studies at the piano (he didn’t at all like to study and practice). Once, however, he heard how everything around was suddenly filled with lo-timbre resonant bell chimes of the Novgorod churches…

As he later recounted, – he dashed home, ran to the piano and attempted to embody in sound the bell chimes that had so stunned him. That day he realized he would become a composer.

A curious detail surfaced in later years: the young Rachmaninoff was so interested by the bells, he begged the bell-ringer of a small church of Fyodor Stratil in Novgorod to take him to the belfry with him. And on a number of occasions he even rang the bells himself!

Just as Rachmaninoff’s first improvisation was of a bell chimes nature, so were many of his first compositions – like the Suite for two pianos, in the finale of which we hear the ringing sounds of the famous Novgorod Sofia Cathedral.”


The final pages recall the world-weary wanderers of Mahler, Kaspar-David Friedrich, Tristan and Schopenhauer. But it is distinctly not tired of living. There is a serene and exquisite peace and it is almost as if unity with the Godly Being has been achieved. This is not the floating spiritual ecstasy of Messiaen, not the volatile ecstasy of Scriabin. This is not the peace of some heaven occupied by podgy harp-playing little cherubs but solid angels wearing warm cloaks to keep out the cold Russian winter.

The Anunciation: Novgorod

The Anunciation: Novgorod

In fact, the closing section of this movement recalls the haunting work of Yayoi Kusama. A deeply troubled artist who has spent 40 years living in a mental institution, has been haunted by hallucinations since childhood. Her artworks are magical worlds of transcendental beauty. Her most famous works include “Infinity Rooms” where she uses lights and mirrors to create a safe, comforting and transcending spaces. Her rooms are Meditation Spaces and she describes the act of constructing the as Meditation. The final bars of this work, inhabit this feeling of  infinity.

Infinity Room - Tate Modern

Infinity Room – Tate Modern

We have had the bells rumble and tinkle into life and grow to an avalanche of energy, transcendent in their beauty and power, and we are emerging on the other side, transformed, as if we have been washed – baptised as it were – by grace, beauty, and an immense sense of infinite love and peace.

Infintiy Room Installation - Tate Modern

Infintiy Room Installation – Tate Modern

Visit this great visionary artist’s website HERE.

Listen to a complete recording of the Vespers.

Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano.
Vladimir Mostowoy, tenor.
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir.
Nikolai Korniev.

The All-Night Vigil (Russian: Всенощное бдение, Vsenoshchnoe bdenie), Opus 37, is an a cappella choral composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff, written and premiered in 1915. It consists of settings of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox All-night vigil ceremony. It has been praised as Rachmaninoff’s finest achievement and “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church”. It was one of Rachmaninoff’s two favorite compositions along with The Bells, and the composer requested that one of its movements (the fifth) be sung at his funeral. The title of the work is often translated as simply Vespers, which is both literally and conceptually incorrect as applied to the entire work: only the first six of its fifteen movements set texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers.

Rachmaninoff composed the All-Night Vigil in less than two weeks in January and February 1915. The first performance was given in Moscow on March 10 of that year, partly to benefit the Russian war effort. Nikolai Danilin conducted the all-male Moscow Synodal Choir at the premiere. It was received warmly by critics and audiences alike, and was so successful that it was performed five more times within a month. However the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union led to a ban on performances of all religious music, and on 22 July 1918 the Synodal Choir was replaced by a nonreligious “People’s Choir Academy”. It has been written that “no composition represents the end of an era so clearly as this liturgical work”

cello Bell 4 Albert Combrink

Read more about the Vespers HERE.

Download Free Sheet Music of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata HERE