12 Mar 2019

Rachmaninoff – Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14

by Michael Clive


In Vocalise, the absence of words does not suggest an absence of meaning or mood. It is lushly melancholy. Russia’s tradition of art songs is rich in ruminations on the difficulties and sadness of life, and in Vocalise many listeners hear a voice that sings on behalf of anyone who feels trapped by unhappiness. More than one critic has compared the melody’s progress to a caged bird seeking escape, rising to near freedom and then falling back.

In rehearsing to perform Vocalise with Rachmaninoff at the piano, soprano Antonina Nezhdanova expressed regret that the music lacked text. “What need is there of words,” asked Rachmaninoff, “when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively than anyone could with words by your voice and interpretation?”