When There Are No Words

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Sometimes there are world events that touch every one of us. At those times, political leaders, religious figures, broadcasters, actors and everyday people try to find the right words to eloquently make sense of what we are experiencing. Language is a wonderful thing, but sometimes there are no words to express feelings that might be complex, wrenching or exultant.

The same thing can apply to music. Arias and songs take our hearts and minds to many places, but there are some spots they cannot reach. The abstraction of instrumental music, often performed by one soloist, effectively communicates what a singer might if she were emitting wordless sound. In opera we have several examples of heart-rending solo instrumental music. Among the most famous are the English horn solo in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Meditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, here played by the violinist Nathan Milstein. It is interesting that the most memorable music in this opera is not performed by a singer.

Singers, when they practice or perform, are said to vocalise (vo-kul-eyes), a verb that is self-evident. But when they sing music without words, they might perform a vocalise (vo-kul-eese) in which all of their expressivity is put into sound.

After so many words have been spoken in recent days, and so many jarring images have returned to view, I have decided to make this communication to my opera friends one of few words. Instead, I hope to provide you with the balm of sound without words, most of it gorgeous and a bit of it rather silly.

Please turn off your phone, television, radio and other devices that might distract you, and listen fully.

First, Daniel Barenboim performs, on the piano, one of Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words:

Next, Mstislav Rostropovich performs the Prelude to Bach's Suite No. 3 for Solo Cello:

Brazilian composed Heitor Villa-Lobos used music of Bach for his Bachianas Brasilieras. Number five is the cantilena, the first part of which is a vocalise. It is given a timeless performance by Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao.

In Indian classical music, an aakaar is a vocalise that often comes in the middle of a song or might be the “answer” one singer gives in pure sound to the words sung by another singer. Here is an example:

There is an inexplicable phenomenon known as Eduard Hil, videos of whom have come streaming out of the “Old Country” since the fall of the Iron Curtain. He is to the vocalise what Velveeta is to prize-winning Cheddar. And yet he is a bit of comic relief.

Montserrat Caballé sings Ravel’s Vocalise en forme de Habanera:

Finally, close your eyes and listen to Natalie Dessay sing the most famous vocalise of them all, by Sergei Rachmaninoff: