The Great Litany

Here is another musical masterpiece from the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). This time from his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

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This piece can serve as a general example of part of a Russian Orthodox liturgy, but first a little background.

After the Roman Catholic Mass, the second most widely celebrated liturgy in the Christian world is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used by most of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, including those of Greece and Russia. This recording is a fragment of the Liturgy as set to original music by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. This excerpt is performed in a liturgical language called Old Church Slavonic used by the Russians, Bulgarians, and several other eastern churches. This work was written by Rachmaninoff for a concert hall, but the Liturgy is still quite beautiful when sung in any form.

For those who are not familiar with Orthodox Christian styles of worship, it makes heavy use of chant in its liturgical practices. The Liturgy is typically sung or chanted from beginning to end. Russians tend toward large choirs while the Greeks tend to use cantors and much more plain chant.  Each style has its own beauty. Of course Rachmaninoff’s liturgy was composed to be sung in the Russian style.

What you are about to hear is the Great Litany sung and chanted in Old Church Slavonic during which the Deacon’s part is sung by the bass, the priest’s part by the tenor. The Deacon begins the litany by reciting a long list of petitions to our Lord God Jesus Christ that pray for our eternal salvation; for the welfare of God’s churches and for the union of all; for the faithful; for the clergy and all the people of the Church; for the nation and its institutions; for the given city and country; for good weather and abundant crops; for travelers, for the sick and suffering, and those in captivity, etc. The Deacon ends each petition with “Let us Pray to the Lord”  or “Gospodo Pomolimsya” in Church Slavonic. The choir and the people respond with “Lord have mercy” or “Gospodi Pomiloy“.

The Great Litany ends with a hymm of praise proper to the Holy Trinity, and then the prayer is completed by a final chorus of “Amen” from the people.

When worshiping in any Orthodox Christian church they say you are transported into another world, and Rachmaninoff has created a magnificant vehicle to help us pay a visit.

YouTube Video:

Sergei Rachmaninoff- The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, excerpt (1910)


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