Rachmaninoff: Vocalise

SERGEI VASILIEVICH RACHMANINOFF

BORN: April 1, 1873. Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia

DIED: March 28, 1943. Beverly Hills, CA

COMPOSED: 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 this concert

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings 

DURATION: About 6 mins

For the six minutes of hypnotic beauty that are Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” we can thank Ivanovka, the composer’s country estate. 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.—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.