The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

Religion in Tradition ~ Rachmaninoff & Six Generations

Today it was once again quite clear that I’m not well versed in the Bible. I admire and, at the same time, envy people who can quote the appropriate verses when you give them a book, chapter, and verse number – as I cannot; but also those who, as a friend with whom I had lunch today, know that Psalm 26 is not ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’, but that, in fact, it is Psalm 23. Immediate fact checking wasn’t possible, but later on she proved her point poignantly by the modern means of Youtube. I will now solemnly swear to, never again, make that mistake between these two particular Psalms.

Het loflied van Simeon, Arent de Gelder (1645-1727), ca. 1700 Medium and dimensions Oil on canvas, 94.5 x 107.5 cm Collection: Stichting Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, ’s-Gravenhage (Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Het loflied van Simeon, Arent de Gelder, ca. 1700,
Oil on canvas, 94.5 x 107.5 cm
Collection: Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, ’s-Gravenhage


The root of this blatant ignorance on my part, lays in the fact that in my family religious faith has become something very personal. And our family’s religion, in the way it is generally taught and practised at family functions, has ended up being rather omnifarious; as a result of two centuries of Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Russians with the Orthodox faith sharing the marital bed(s) (see also: Christ has risen! ~ Thank Heaven(s) for Bach). From stories, letters, and diaries I have learnt that all shared at least one common train of thought: Religion is a personal matter. One raises the children with Christian values, morals and traditions, but never pushes them into a church, for then they will surely leave it. But my Russian (three times) great-grandmother, for example, made sure all of her (great) grandchildren knew the ways of the orthodox rite and were familiar with the incensed glory of her faith.

Tradition is the keyword. As I explained in an earlier blog post (Bajushki-baju ~ Childhood Revisited), where I quoted an old aunt: ‘Traditions are a vital part of our history, they are the absolute proof of our truly European heritage (…)’. The aforementioned Russian ancestress has not only left me that lullaby, but she also moulded her orthodox faith into a cherished tradition. Quite recently we buried my father. He had been ill for some time, but still his passing was uncannily sudden. As we found ourselves planning this unexpected funeral service it was quite clear what particular piece of music was needed to be played.

In 1915, the elderly Alexandra Kurakina travelled to Moscow to see her family. What she did not know: It was the last time she would find her family and friends gathered; nor could she have realized to never see her home country again. Two years later, the Russian Revolution resulted in a total eradication of the world she was brought up in. During that last visit she attended one of the first performances of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil – sometimes erroneously summarized as the Vespers. Although it was not always possible to find proper basses (a problem solved by digital music) – ever since she attended that concert, movements from the All-Night Vigil have been performed at family funerals. In 1919 it was done so for the first time: My great-grandfather, her grandson, had managed not getting himself killed during the war, but after he returned home he set out for the hunt on one cold day in January. His horse became startled and threw him off – he died almost instantly of a broken neck. His funeral service took nearly two hours. Even though not all movements were or will be played at every funeral – there is one which is rather mandatory, and traditionally played at the end of the service: The fifth movement. Within the greater liturgy known as Nunc dimittis or Simon’s Song of Praise, but as the fifth movement known as Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart.

I may not be as well versed in the bible as I would like to be, even though it would be more for reasons of knowledge rather than faith; I do keep to traditions that are rooted in the various religions of my ancestors. And, again, as I get older my appreciation for them gradually grows.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, photo portrait, seated at Steinway grand piano, ca. 1920 (source)

Sergei Rachmaninoff, photo portrait, seated at Steinway grand piano, ca. 1920 (source)

Sergei Rachmaninoff, ‘All-Night Vigil’ (1915), fifth movement: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart.
Performance: The State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR, Alexander Sveshnikov, 1965
Soloist: Konstantin Ognevoy (tenor)

Nyne otpushchayeshi raba Tvoego, Vladyko, po glagolu Tvoyemu s mirom:
yako videsta ochi moi spaseniye Tvoye,
ezhe esi ugotoval pred litsem vsekh lyudei;
svet vo otkrovenie yazykov,
i slavu lyudei Tvoikh Izrailya.

Of the many English translations in current use, I think the one that has been published by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), in their Liturgy of the Hours from 1975 is the most gracious.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled.
My eyes have seen the salvation
you have prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.

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