This week, SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC takes a turn for the Romantic in honor of Valentine’s Day. Here’s the famous Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14, composed by Sergei Rachmaninov, performed below by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (New Zealand).
About the Composer:
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was Russian. Like, really Russian. When I think of Russian music, my mind goes to Rachmaninov first, Tchaikovsky second. And Rimsky-Korsakov third. Gotta love those Russian names.
Rachmaninov was born on an old Russian aristocratic estate in the northwest portion of the country, but his father — a gambler and lady’s man — ran the family into debt, sold the estate, and moved his wife and six children to St. Petersburg. This turned out to be a good thing for little Seryozha (yay for Russian diminutive nicknames!), who had started learning piano at age four, because at ten he was accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory. As he grew up, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, commiserated with Tchaikovsky, and played for a Grand Duke. His First Symphony, premiered in 1897, was a complete failure, panned in the reviews. This rejection threw him into a period of depression and writer’s block, which he emerged from three years later with the completion of his brilliant Second Piano Concerto. Rachmaninov was known for his virtuosic piano writing which few people could successfully play because the composer had such abnormally large hands (see this awesome comedy sketch for an example). The music of Rachmaninov, informed by his initial failure and by the late 19th-century Russian political climate, is dark and colorful and deeply moving — the epitome of Romantic music. Because no one does Romanticism better than Rachmaninov.
About the Piece:
The YouTube search “rachmaninov vocalise” turns up 29,800 results. Even if you are the purest of Classical Music Skeptics and have never heard mention of the name Rachmaninov, you probably have heard his Vocalise. Even Christina Aguilera has heard it — she references it at the end of her single “Hurt” — and Christina Aguilera is in a category pretty far off from Rachmaninov. The piece is super famous, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
There are so many versions of the Vocalise, performed on different instruments, at different tempos, with different artistic goals in mind. My personal favorite is Eugene Izotov’s oboe version (not on YouTube) from his album Sound in Motion. Some other amazing performances include Itzhak Perlman’s on violin; Luka Sulic’s on cello (“OMG he is soooo hot!” –anonymous non-musician friend of mine…); Ranaan Meyer’s on string bass; Clara Rockmore’s on theremin (since I’m on a theremin kick); and Vadim Novikov’s on trumpet. But I chose instead to feature the great soprano Kiri Te Kanawa‘s version, because what better way to perform a vocal-ise than, well, vocally?
Trusty old Dictionary.com tells us that a vocalise is “a musical composition consisting of the singing of melody with vowel sounds or nonsense syllables rather than text, as for special effect in classical compositions.” Basically, a vocalise is a song without words — but a lack of words doesn’t make it less meaningful! All the instrumental versions I listed stay true to the definition of vocalise by virtue of the “singing” quality of the instruments. Rachmaninov harnessed the full emotional range of the human voice in his composition, the melody sweeping and haunting in a way that is purely Russian and unquestionably beautiful.