Of all the various forms of classical music that composers have indulged over the last few hundred years, the one about which I know the least is almost certainly the art song. These works, for voice and piano, have never made a big part of my regular listening, mainly because my main love musically tends to me large ensembles: orchestras, wind ensembles, choirs, and so on. The art song is chamber music of the most intimate kind, and it’s not really to my credit that it’s such an unexplored musical world for me.
Especially when, by all accounts, Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote one of the finest bodies of song literature in all of Russian Romanticism. Songs poured out of him while he lived in Russia, and he had his friends constantly on the lookout for poems that he might set. One of his most famous pieces is actually a wordless song–but we’ll come back to that one. For now, I’m interested in a six-song cycle, “Six Romances”, op. 38. I found an excellent musical description of these six songs here, and I recommend it highly; I find it hard to discuss songs in such concrete terms. But it’s worth noting that as a song composer, Rachmaninoff–as a piano virtuoso of the highest order–was not concerned with simply accompanying the singer. In Rachmaninoff’s songs the piano is equal partner with the vocalist; neither performer is a featured soloist, but the two work together to form a strong whole.
It’s also important to note how strongly the art song was bound, for Rachmaninoff, to Russia itself. After he fled Russia in the wake of the Revolution in 1917 with his family, eventually to settle in America, he never again wrote a song, nor did he even record one or perform one live. Leaving Russia killed the song for him, and music is all the poorer for that.
Very enjoyable! I liked the echoes of French Impressionism (Debussy, Ravel, etc.) in the parallel block chords in the fifth song and the shimmering piano in the last.