Rachmaninoff: “Vocalise,” Opus 34, No.14

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born at Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. The “Vocalise” in its original version is the last of a set of fourteen songs on which Rachmaninoff began work in 1910 and which he completed in 1912. In 1915, he made the orchestral setting we hear at these concerts. The first and only San Francisco Symphony performances of the orchestral version were led by Michael Tilson Thomas during the Symphony’s 2002 Opening Gala week. The work is scored for two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Performance time: About six minutes.

Long before anyone heard of “environmental music,” Rachmaninoff had composed a soft-focus, proto-New Age classic in his “Vocalise”—six minutes of hypnotic beauty, the aural equivalent of a soothing massage. As Rachmaninoff eases us through the rising and falling patterns of his haunting melody, a wordless song undulating like warm hands on tense muscle, we can feel our breathing ease and our blood pressure drop.

For all this, thank Ivanovka. Ivanovka was the country estate of Rachmaninoff’s uncle Alexander Satin (one of whose daughters, Natalia, became Rachmaninoff’s wife in 1902). The future composer had spent his first summer at Ivanovka, a summer refuge in the Russian steppe country, when he was sixteen. By 1910, he was a card-carrying member of the Russian music world, a sought-after, overworked conductor and pianist, and creator of (among much else) three piano concertos, two symphonies, and works for solo piano. He was also, by marriage, now a member of the Satin family, and when his aging uncle-turned-father-in-law sought to unburden himself of Ivanovka’s management, Rachmaninoff added the supervision of estate business to his other responsibilities. He loved Ivanovka, loved the expanse of the countryside that ringed it, loved the vast space between his eyes and the long horizon. Most of all, he loved its distance from a world of exhausting duties.

Not that he ignored that world. For it wanted his music. And Ivanovka was a quiet place that seemed made for a composer to meet the demands of his public. There, in the summer of 1912, Rachmaninoff completed the fourteen songs that make up his Opus 34. The “Vocalise,” last of the group, is wordless music whose calm, and whose expansive lines, capture the spirit of its birthplace. Some have called the “Vocalise” an exercise for voice, though the work is about more than pitch structures, and to do it justice a singer must have a sense of what the music is “saying”—not through words, but in gestures, inflections, and concentrated intensity of expression.

Three years after completing his version for voice and piano, Rachmaninoff turned the “Vocalise” into a work for orchestra. Others have found the “Vocalise” irresistible and have adapted it to their own purposes. Among the versions that have been made are one for solo piano, another for duo pianos, and orchestral settings with various solo instruments, including violin, piano, flute, and cello. A version for theremin is out there, too. The Russian National Orchestra even commissioned a version for wind quintet as a gift to Athena Troxel Blackburn, one of that orchestra’s major patrons, and also a member of the San Francisco Symphony’s Board of Governors.

—Larry Rothe

Larry Rothe, former editor of the San Francisco Symphony’s program book, is author of the SFS history Music for a City, Music for the World and co-author of For the Love of Music. Both books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and at sfsymphony.org/store.

More About the Music

Recordings: Leopold Stokowski with the Leopold Stokowski Orchestra(EMI Classics)

Reading: Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press)  |  Rakhmaninov, by Geoffrey Norris (Oxford Master Musicians series)  |  Rachmaninov, by Patrick Piggott (Faber)