Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Vespers

At the mention of Rachmaninoff’s name, I always think “piano.” His first, second, and third piano concertos followed by the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, of course, place him at the pinnacle of composers for that instrument. But every so often, I come across a recording of his Vespers and remember that it contains some of the most beautiful choral music ever written.

I discovered this recording by accident and by luck. While combing through the bins of Rachmaninoff’s music at the local mall one day in 1974, I came across the recording of the Vespers. The lucky thing for me was that the two-record set had been mismarked as a single, so though unfamiliar with the music, I snapped up the album anyway.

What I heard completely astounded me. Written between 1910 and 1915, it is a series of A capella (voices only) choruses. They have a distinctly Russian flavor, being based on ancient slavic melodies. Some of them have a driving rhythm, sung at a slow tempo, which imitates the pealing of bells.

But by far, my favorite is the fifth movement, which is called “Lord, now letttest Thou Thy servant depart.” Supposedely the prayer on which the text is taken is used when Russian Orthodox children are presented to the church. As it nears the end, it slows and the bases take the melody. Their voices go low, lower, and finally so impossibly low that you can barely hear them. During rehearsals for the first performance, the conductor exclaimed: “Where can we possibly find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!”

In the liner notes of my recording, I read that when the priest receives the child, he places the child on the ground. The parents then retrieve the child, picking it up from the earth to symbolize it is the earth from which all things are made. The music is so fitting therefore, as the voices bring us down to ground level. Very earthy indeed.


Buy CD of Rachmaninov. Vespers or download MP3s on Amazon.

Gioacchino Rossini: Mi par d’esser con la testa from The Barber of Seville

This, the last aria from the Barber of Seville that I’m going to write about never ceases to amaze me. It did so when I first heard it about 40 years ago in high school, and did today when I gave listened to it on Youtube. It makes me think of a line from the movie, Amadeus. Mozart, speaking about his opera Le Nozze di Figaro says that opera is the only art form in which you can have four different people speaking at the same time, each presenting a different point of view or even having an argument. What’s wonderful though is that what in real life would appear pandemonium, in opera sounds heavenly.

The piece in which Rossini illustrates this fact, Mi par d’essere con la testa is a quintet for Rosina, Almaviva, Figaro, Basilio and Bartolo. Almaviva has succeeded in infiltrating Don Bartolo’s house by pretending he is a drunken soldier who has been billeted there. Don Bartolo won’t have any of it: he says he has a letter that exempts him receiving billets. As he goes to produce it, Almaviva slips Rosina a love note. Bartolo catches sight of it. Almaviva makes Bartolo drop his letter and Rosina drops hers. He then manages to mix them up handing back to Bartolo nothing more than a laundry list.

Rosina’s presence inflames Almaviva which makes Bartolo suspicious. Now angry, the doctor again tries to get the count to leave. Almaviva starts to threaten him with a sword, telling him he will kill him when Figaro arrives. The barber and Rosina try to calm the two suitors down, but they all become so loud that the local police come knocking at the door. They enter and demand to know what is going on as the din has attracted a crowd in front of the house.

Bartolo explains that he is affronted in his own house by a drunken soldier. The police chief is about to cart Almaviva away, when the count secretly shows him a letter that reveal his true identity–Count Almaviva, a nobleman. At this, the police chief is thunderstruck. Back then, nobles were inviolate. The others sing in wonderment at how something suddenly struck dumb the police chief. When he comes to his senses, he tells them to stop arguing. When Bartolo tries to get him to arrest Almaviva, the chief implies that if he doesn’t drop it, he might have to arrest him. That would have been within his powers.

This confuses everyone even more and they begin to sing:

Mi par d’esser con la testa
in un orrida fucina.
alternando questo e quello
pesantissimo martello
fa con un barbara armonia
mure e volte rimbombar, si
I feel as if I’ve stuck my head
into some dreadful smithy
Alternating one with the other
The heavy hammer blows
Make a barbarous harmony
That shakes the walls and rafters

To me this piece demonstrates once and for all Rossini’s mastery of matching his music to the words. Again, like La Calunnia it starts out soft. In the background the violins play quick triplets, punctuated by a triangle which imitates the sound of the crashing hammers. It is funny, clever, upbeat, and incredible as each voice surfaces for an instant and then is drowned out by another.

You know how the opera ends: After more intrigue and humorous scenes in which he and Figaro dupe Bartolo, Almaviva gets the girl. Not because his is any better a person, but because he could pay more than Bartolo. Maybe it’s more fitting that he is younger than Bartolo, but that’s not the main theme. The theme is that Figaro–a common barber–is clearly more clever than any of them, and idea that was revolutionary for Rossini’s day.

When you think about all the people in positions of power–US generals involved in sex scandals, corporate executives like those in Enron whose greed brought the company down, politicians who line their pockets while shafting the polity–have become our new nobility, maybe it’s time once again for some revolutionary action.

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