Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rachmaninov's Vocalise

One of the pieces we are playing this summer in the Vermont Symphony Festival Concerts consists of the very simplest thing in music – a melody. That’s all it is. It is a very lovely melody, quite a long melody, a very haunting melody. And it is one of those pieces that, in its apparent simplicity, conceals the complexity and subtlety and skill of the composer.

It is called Vocalise, which, like many musical titles, sounds quite romantic, but has a disappointingly prosaic meaning. My favorite in this regard is the opening movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto, which is entitled Nicht zu schnell. As a young child I thought that sounded wonderfully evocative, until I found out that it means not too fast.

“Vocalise” just means it’s a thing for a human voice, a vocal piece. It needs that name because, being for the voice, it is obviously some sort of song, but in this case it has no words at all, so all the artistry is in the shape of the vocal line. There are no words to give you hints about what feelings it addresses, what sort of thing you ought to be emoting about while it is going on. I’ll have a lot more to say about that when I write about Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.

Vocalise is the last of a set of 14 songs that Rachmaninov wrote, and it became so popular that it has been arranged for all sorts of instrumental setups. We shall be playing the version that Rachmaninov himself wrote, so that the piece could be played by an orchestra, without a singer at all. Originally it was for voice and piano, but it has taken on a life of its own far wider than that. In this version, the melody is given to most of the violins, just a few of them being reserved for the orchestral accompaniment. So it is a sort of tiny concerto for the majority of the violin section.

What is so special about this piece? Well, it is vaguely melancholy and haunting, as so much Russian music is, but most of all it has this uncanny ability to escape your grasp. If you know it, you will recognize it instantly by the first two or three notes. But I’ll bet you’ll never be able to sing along with it. From my point of view, conducting it, it is quite hard to learn, since although it sounds completely natural and instinctive, almost as if it were being improvised, it really isn’t.

By the way, another piece that is an absolute masterpiece of apparent simplicity hiding bewildering complexity is Ravel’s Bolero. Everybody knows that the same silly tune goes round and around with utter predictability. But just try singing it. The overall strategy is annoyingly predictable, but the details are maddeningly unmemorable. A Masterpiece!

Anyway, back to “Vocalise.” The phrases of this lovely piece do not come to an end in any natural, trivial way, so although it feels exactly right all the time, you cannot tell, at any given moment, whether you are at the beginning of a line, or coming close to the end of one.

You know how, usually in songs, the melody falls into phrases just as the words do? Think of The Star Spangled Banner, which will open all the concerts. You know where each phrase starts and stops. You know when you can breathe. But in Vocalise Rachmaninov does a very clever thing. Just when the phrase is about to end, he lets it flow on, not stopping, making it turn out that what you thought was an ending is in fact a beginning. So, in a way that you do not notice as you listen, he keeps you suspended all the time throughout the entire piece. It’s almost like holding your breath all the way through.

When you add that timeless quality to the vague sadness of the piece, with just occasional moments of rest, it becomes like a really well- told story, one you cannot put down. A melody that sounds so simple, but will not let you rest until the whole thing is over.

Much great music is like that. The skill of the composer is tricking you into thinking that you are listening to something very simple. Each moment feels simple. But if you try to sing along, or remember it afterwards, you find it has escaped you. It gave you a glimmer of a vision of a distant world, and let you feel you were inside it as long as the music lasted. But once it is over, you find you did not grasp the rainbow; the vision has receded, and you are left back in the world of normality, wishing to visit that land of music all over again.

Andrew Massey