Some concerts might feel like they take all night long — but “All-Night Vigil,” an entire night of church music composed by Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, actually does last all night long.
While he’s viewed as a secular composer who stayed away from religious dedications, Rachmaninoff also set music to the Eastern Orthodox all-night vigil.
Rachmaninoff’s musical setting of the ceremony took him just two weeks to write, and was especially significant because he’d stopped attending church services at the time.
“His piece is an aural window into the beyond, into the divine,” said Jared Jacobsen, Chautauqua’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. “And you don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to write it down — it’s like a half-remembered dream.”
At 8 p.m. Sunday, July 14 in the Amphitheater, Jacobsen will feature a piece from Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” and other secular music in the Sacred Song Service, “There Is Something Holy Here.”
This service will, according to Jacobsen, “look at six different ways that I thought would expand our thinking past the glue on the flap of the envelope.”
“There’s something more out there than just our Christian forms of worship,” Jacobsen said. “I was really interested in doing a service that explodes the boundaries of what we think is reasonable and proper.”
As part of preparing this service, Jacobsen said he realized that some traditions are “richer in imagery and storytelling than maybe Christian traditions are.”
Along those lines, Jacobsen included the song “Dear Sarah” by American composer James Syler in the program, a song which uses historic text from a Union Army soldier’s letter to his wife.
“Sullivan Ballou was a major in the Union Army about to go into battle when he wrote this letter to his wife,” Jacobsen said. “It was the First Battle of Bull Run, which was a massacre. The Union Army was creamed.”
According to Jacobsen, Syler excerpted a portion of Ballou’s letter as the lyrics to his choral piece.
“(Syler) uses a line from the end of the piece, ‘if the dead can come back to the Earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you,’ ” Jacobsen said. “I don’t understand how that might work, but I believe from my personal faith that yes, there is something beyond death.”
Another song to be highlighted in the service is the German-American composer Herman Berlinski’s “The Burning Bush.”
“This is the composer’s attempt to tell the story of this argument between God and Moses,” Jacobsen said. “It starts with this almost inaudible swirling, like you’re walking and all of a sudden something is not quite right. And then something catches your attention, and it begins to swirl and the flames begin to climb. It’s like watching a bonfire.”
Jacobsen said that, in the Biblical story of Moses and the burning bush, it’s possible that “God probably could have sat Moses down in a Starbucks and had that same conversation — but that’s just not the way they roll in the Old Testament.”
It’s stories from a variety of faiths that Jacobsen said can make the music “richer in imagery and storytelling than maybe Christian traditions are.”