SERGEI RACHMANINOV Vocalise
Here’s a treat for guitarists with a penchant for the sophisticated, as Bridget Mermikides transcribes a piece that requires a balance between capturing melody and managing complex chords.
Bridget Mermikides arranges and transcribes a sophisticated piece that requires capturing melody and playing complex chords.
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a Russian composer and virtuoso pianist, whose music is characterised by rich, widely spaced chords and ferociously technical yet highly-expressive melodies. This makes him one of the greatest composers of the 20th century but means his work is a challenge to translate adequately to the solo guitar. Fortunately, with some work, there are pieces that are within our grasp.
Vocalise (Opus 34 No 14) is one such piece. Composed in 1915 for the Russian opera star Antonina Nezhdanova, it is the last in the set of 14 songs for piano and voice and it has inspired countless performances, recordings and a huge range of solo and ensembles.
Unusually the vocalist is instructed in the score to sing the melody not with lyrics but on a vowel of their own choosing. When Nezhdanova complained the composer replied: “What need is there for words, when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively than anyone could with words by your voice and interpretation?”. In fact, the lack of lyrics on this sumptuous melody might help explain its universal appeal, as well as why it is adopted so successfully by such a wide range of instruments. Not only the traditional ‘classical’ instruments but also electric guitar and band (courtesy of none other than Slash). It is also a seminal piece for the theremin instrument with its ethereal sound that you’ll recognise from early sci-fi movies and, of course, Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys.
The challenge of this arrangement is to allow the guitar to play the melody smoothly and expressively while maintaining a balanced chordal support underneath. To achieve this it is important to fully understand and absorb the melody (listening to several versions as well as mine will help), as well as having the technical control to execute it. This might take some time with the score, my recording and the tab captions, but it’s worth all the effort so that you can perform this beautiful work by one of the greatest composers of the last century.
THE VOCALIST IS INSTRUCTED TO SING THE MELODY NOT WITH LYRICS BUT WITH A VOWEL OF THEIR OWN CHOOSING
Rachmaninov: virtuoso pianist and composer