In Russian Orthodox ceremony, the accepted rite is that compiled by St. John Chrysostom (344-407) which is written and sung in "Old," or "Church," Slavonic. As with its Latin counterpart in the Western church, the mass, the St. John Liturgy provides opportunites for fresh settings by professional composers for use in the Russian Orthodox Church. Pyotr Tchaikovsky's turn came in 1878, although the commission came through his publisher, Juergenson, rather than through the Russian Orthodox Church itself. Tchaikovsky was very pleased to undertake this commission, as in his own words "the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is one of the most exalted works of art. Anyone following the liturgy of the service attentively, trying to comprehend the meaning of each ceremony, will be stirred to the very depth of his being." Tchaikovsky completed his setting in 1880, and, after a trial run-through with a chorus from the Moscow Conservatory (which the composer regarded as "one of the happiest moments of my career as an artist"), the work was given a concert performance in Moscow in December 1880.
Tchaikovsky's St. John Liturgy was a resounding success with the Russian public, but not so with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Church hierarchy rejected it not on musical grounds, but on its initial place of venue, since they deemed it inappropriate for the liturgy to be given in a public concert and subject to applause. Tchaikovsky was deeply pained by the official condemnation of his work by the Church, but in 1883 the newly crowned Tsar of Russia, Alexander III, asked Tchaikovsky for more sacred music, a request that the composer happily complied with a handful of hymns and other settings. Tchaikovsky's attitude in his sacred music was to "preserve these old chants in their original form" and to "help restore the original character and style of our Church music." His relatively conservative approach resulted in music which was built to last, and happily, they have prevailed, as pieces from the Tchaikovsky liturgy have in time become some of the most frequently performed liturgical music in Russia. Its lasting appeal stems, in part, from the aspect of purely musical personality that Tchaikovsky was unable to subserve to the liturgical text, and in individual pieces, such as the lovely "We Sing Thee," the unmistakable personal stamp of Tchaikovsky ultimately wins out.