Vocalise was written by the Russian composer, Rachmaninoff, in 1915 and is the last of his Fourteen Songs Op. 34. Originally scored for high voice and piano, Vocalise contains no words, and is sung on a single vowel of the singer’s choosing. It was dedicated to the soprano Antonina Nezhdanova to whom Rachmaninoff explained: What need is there of words when, through your voice and interpretation, you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively than anyone could with words?
Bearing in mind that one of Rachmaninoff’s near contemporaries, Stravinsky, had written the ground-breaking ballet, The Rite of Spring, two years before Vocalise was penned, the contrast in style and approach is stark. Rachmaninoff doggedly refused to alter his style throughout his career, leading Stravinsky to describe Rachmaninoff’s highly emotional music as ‘overblown movie music’ – though not to his face!
Whilst Rachmaninoff was not the avant-garde progressive that Stravinsky thought every composer’s duty, his work represents a culmination of the classic romance. Vocalise has an almost hypnotic, dream-like quality – some have even described it as an ‘aural equivalent of a soothing massage’. Perhaps Rachmaninoff drew inspiration for the piece whilst staying at Ivanovka – the country estate of Rachmaninoff’s uncle (and father-in-law): a quiet place he loved and where he could retreat from a world of exhausting duties.
It proved so popular that Rachmaninoff soon set about producing different versions of the piece, including one for orchestra. Over the years countless arrangements for all manner of instrumental combinations have been produced.