Vocalise, Sergei Rachmaninoff

“Two bridge railings symbolize two people supporting each other through life’s journey. But when one railing is missing, it is like one half has gone away.”

~ Chopinand, co-author of ChopinandMysaucepan


As we all know, to be considered great, every good love story must involve tragedy and perhaps death.

So too with music, where the great modern lyricists and songwriters such as Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira & George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael to name just a few, only knew too well.

The ‘happy songs’ they composed in major keys make us feel good. But for a song to be truly great, they wrote poetic lyrics to accompany haunting melodies in minor keys that moved our hearts.

So it is also no coincidence that some of the greatest operas, symphonies, ballets and piano concertos ever written by the great composers were in minor key signatures.

But what about a song that has no lyrics? Some of the greatest in the classical music repertoire can move us to tears without a single written word. The power of music to convey emotions in any language makes it truly the universal language of love.

Vocalise, Opus 34 No. 14 by Sergei Rachmaninoff 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 - 1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 - 1943)

Vocalise was composed in 1912 as the last of Rachmaninoff‘s Fourteen Songs in his Opus 34.

Even though it was originally composed for solo voice with piano accompaniment, this song does not contain words. The entire song is sung by using any one vowel chosen by the singer.

Vocalise was dedicated to soprano Antonina Nezhdanova.

The original composition is in the key of C sharp minor and although it can be sung by a soprano or tenor voice, it is usually chosen to be performed by a soprano.

Since its first publication it has been transposed into a variety of different keys, allowing performers to choose a vocal range that is more suited to their natural voice.

Due to the popularity of this song, more than thirty different variations have been arranged for solo instrument, for chamber ensemble, for / with orchestra and for solo instrument with piano accompaniment.

Vocalise for solo piano ~ performed by Yuja Wang

The composition for solo piano is hardly the most difficult of Rachmaninoff‘s pieces although certain chords played by each hand demand fairly large stretches. This is not unexpected with Rachmaninoff‘s music for the piano. After all, the composer stood six foot six inches tall and had a legendary huge thirteen-note hand span.

(Listening tip ~ use a good set of headphones)

In Vocalise, no words are necessary as Rachmaninoff left a blank canvas for us to paint our own images.

I like Yuja Wang‘s sensitive interpretation at the 2008 Verbier Music Festival because I believe her performance is among the very best in conveying the sadness of this piece. Her reading of the music is emotional yet accurate whilst her technique is absolutely flawless.

Yuja Wang ~ diminutive pianist with large hands

Yuja Wang ~ diminutive pianist with large hands

There are at least four notable transcriptions of Rachmaninoff‘s original including one by legendary American pianist and composer Earl Wild.  This version performed by Wang is the transcription by Hungarian pianist, composer and conductor Zoltan Kocsis.

(You can download a copy of Rachmaninoff – Transcription of Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14 by Zoltan Kocsis).

Personally, I like this transcription best ~ the right hand arpeggios that accompany the melodic line (from 3:16 in the video above) are tragically moving.

These passages are solemn yet beautiful and they alone, motivated me to study this piece in the first place.

And for a performer who feels a compulsion to play a particular piece of music is encouraging. It means that performer has ‘something to say’ about it and a good conversation is one that usually comes from the heart.

Vocalise for soprano voice ~ performed by Kiri Te Kanawa

 (Listening tip ~ use a good set of headphones)

Kiri Te Kanawa

Acclaimed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa

Apart from the version for solo piano, my other favourite is the original composition for soprano voice.

Legendary soprano Kiri Te Kanawa sings this version in the original key of C sharp minor, her vocal range nailing some of the highest notes with relative ease.

Famed for a warm and mellow voice, her haunting rendition of this song at the Royal Opera House in London in 1994 is immensely heart-moving.

The story of an Old Wooden Bridge 

I chanced upon a wooden bridge (cover image above) while strolling with Mysaucepan during one of our trips to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

The bridge is very old and one side of its railings is missing. Two bridge railings symbolize two people supporting each other through life’s journey. But when one railing is missing, it is like one half has gone away.  A lively stream that flows beneath a bridge is like the happiness that flows between two happy people but this stream has since dried up and long deserted its path.

Alas! I awake to the painful emotions in Kiri Te Kanawa’s voice that convey the fascinating beauty of this bridge ~ a moment of happiness lights up a smile that fuels a beautiful heart, which in turn, becomes the promise of good things to come. So whenever Mysaucepan is far away, the image of this bridge lends comfort that she is near.

And more than a hundred years since Vocalise was written in 1912, the imaginative power and substance behind this song have not diminished its ability to convey beauty and splendour through grief and sorrow. It is this quality in Rachmaninoff‘s music that makes him among the most enduring and revered of all.

Whenever I sit by my piano late at night and begin playing this song, dark and grey images come before me. They bring the beauty of sadness and solitude. At the same time, the poignant and vivid colours of sorrow which I also see, never fail to captivate my heart.

As I caress this piano, the emotions I feel tell me life is worth living for.

An old wooden bridge in Sutton Forest, New South Wales, Australia

An old wooden bridge in Sutton Forest, New South Wales, Australia

So dear readers, do you enjoy classical music and if so, do you have a favourite composer and what do you feel when you hear the music?

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9 Responses to Vocalise, Sergei Rachmaninoff

  1. Hannah says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. Dear Chopinand,

    Your entire post was a heartfelt conversation, from the stunning black & white photo illustrating your feelings about being separated from MySaucepan, to the beautiful piano and vocal renditions of Vocalise that you shared, to your musings about sitting down at the piano to express your emotions, to the final photo in living color signifying hope.

    “Good conversations come from the heart.” Yours certainly did. Thank you. I felt blessed to experience this conversation.

    • Chopinand says:

      Dear Kim,

      Thank you for your kind words. Yuja Wang’s interpretation is so delicate and sensitive yet true to the great tradition of Rachmaninoff’s dark and sorrowful tone.

      This piece of music is truly beautiful and when I started to write, the words came easily, and they came from the heart.

  3. Juliana says:

    Such a sweet post…
    I love classical music…and guess what? My favorite composer is Rachmaninoff, I can never get tired of his music…

    • Chopinand says:

      Dear Juliana,

      I’m glad you enjoy Rachmaninoff’s music. Through the years, I feel I am relating more to his works.

      But for me, it is a very tough choice to name a favourite composer because there are so many important ones that appeal to different people.

      An opera fan might like Wagner and a pianist may enjoy Liszt or Chopin. On the same token, the music of Bach, Mozart and Tchaikovsky to just name a few, are too important to ignore for any classical music lover.

  4. What a terrific post. At the beginning just reading through the composers I was mentally singing along with Paul Robeson’s Old Man River. Then I watched the video and was so moved by Vocalise and then clicked Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s wonderful piece.

    I am a fan of Mozart and Salzburg is my favourite city to visit. I also very much enjoy Strauss waltzes if I’m feeling sorry for myself. Try to be sad while listening to the Radetsky March – I don’t think it’s possible.

    • Chopinand says:

      Dear Maureen,

      I love Old Man River especially the version sung by Frank Sinatra. Some of the greatest Strauss waltzes are composed in major keys with such majestic style, it is quite impossible to feel down.

  5. brock crysler says:

    Love Rachmaninov of course and have been trying to compare the first few notes of his Vocalise and the first few notes of the clarinet in Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso,about 2:25 into the movie’s theme.I have never studied music but there sure seems some similarity there in those opening notes…am I crazy??hahaha
    So much classical music to choose from,would take for ever to list it all!!

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