Tone Poem Tuesday: Rachmaninoff at 150, the many lives of “Vocalise”

There are some pieces of music that take on lives of their own, extending far beyond their origins to become something bigger. Rachmaninoff wrote a song cycle in 1915 called 14 Romances, op. 34. We’ve already noted that Rachmaninoff was one of the great Russian masters of the art song (a facet of his output that is underappreciated by many, including myself), but one of the songs of this cycle transcended the other thirteen and has become not just one of Rachmaninoff’s most well-known works, but one of the most well-known works of classical music…so much so that it is heard far less often in its original setting.

The song is the last in the cycle, called “Vocalise”. It has no words. The singer is instructed to sing the entire melody on the vowel sound of their choosing. The melody’s swirling nature takes over the song to almost hypnotic effect when unfettered by words and their tendency to impose meaning on things. “Vocalise” becomes a tone poem in itself, in which a pianist and a vocalist work together to make something rather magical.

Here’s “Vocalise” in its original form:

The story of “Vocalise” doesn’t end there, though. The melody and feeling of “Vocalise” has proved too tempting to the music world to just leave it to the sopranos of the world, or the pianists. So, this one song has been set and re-set and re-set again, arranged for every combination of musicians you can think of. In this way it’s not unlike Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which everybody has heard in some version or other, but almost never the way Pachelbel originally wrote it. (Does that make you curious? Here you go!)

Some versions expand the piano accompaniment to a string orchestra:

Once you go that far, it’s easy enough to just give the whole thing to the orchestra!

Or you can make it a piece of chamber music, this time for string quartet:

Or you still do it for string quartet, but differently:

This one is near to my heart, for obvious reasons. I wish I’d known this existed back in my trumpet playing days:

How about a saxophone? Don’t laugh! Rachmaninoff himself appreciated the saxophone, using it to great effect in his Symphonic Dances, one of his last works. I have a feeling he’d appreciate this one.

How about a British brass band?

You can go down quite the rabbit hole looking for new and different renditions of this one song. (Electric guitar, anyone?) But I’ll feature just two more. First, almost bringing it back to the original version, this time keeping the piano all by itself:

And finally, returning to the orchestra arrangement, this time in conducted almost a hundred years ago by Rachmaninoff himself. This video uses old film footage of Rachmaninoff and family, making it something of a time capsule:

Why is “Vocalise” so enormously effective, to the point that everyone wants to play it? I suspect the answer is a simple one: that gorgeous melody, dreamy and slightly melancholy, is just appealing on a gut level, and it’s a long melody that weaves an almost hypnotic spell on the listener. There are a lot of emotions expressed in this short work, and I think that’s at the heart of its appeal to both audiences and performers alike. In the end, I think that many times, if not every time, we want our music to express something, even if we can’t quite put in words just what it is that’s being expressed.

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