Though not considered an innovative composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) had a knack for keeping the traditional in music fresh. His music combines Western influences with those of his native Russia. Though he made his primary living as a pianist, his compositional output is outstanding, ranging from works for piano, orchestra, and voice!
Rachmaninoff began his studies with piano under his mother’s tutelage. He later went on to attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he remained until his parents separated, causing his grades to suffer. At that point, he moved to the Moscow Conservatory where he lived and studied with Nikolay Zverev. He met Tchaikovsky during this time, who would have a great influence on the young composer.
Though primarily known for his works incorporating the piano, Rachmaninoff also wrote art songs. Today let’s look at an example that many may be familiar with, but unaware of its origins. The 14 Songs, Op. 34 was written for specific Russian singers based on their known talents. Rachmaninoff chose poetry to set to music from popular poets including Pushkin, Tyutchev, Polonsky, Khmyakov, Maykov, Korinfsky, and Bal’mont. The songs generally contain simple vocal lines with accompaniments that emphasize certain parts of the text. His famous “Vocalise” is the last song in this opus. Many of you may know this piece from one of many instrumental arrangements that have developed since the piece’s origin. In the beginning, however, it existed as a wordless song that he wrote at Ivanovka, the family country estate. You can almost hear the calm escape from the world that Rachmaninoff enjoyed at Ivanovka in “Vocalise.” Below you can enjoy Kathleen Battle sing this beautiful song in its original form.