Vaughan Williams turned to the vocal genre in his last four efforts, producing the masterful 1957 song collection, Ten Blake Songs, and from his last year, Three Vocalises, Four Last Songs, and the vocal/choral The First Nowell, the last of which he did not live to complete. These Vocalises, then, and the Four Last Songs were his only complete compositions from 1958, his swan songs. Vaughan Williams is not generally known for his vocal music, but his 80-odd songs, numerous folk song arrangements, and many choral works demonstrate his consummate skill in the genre.
The Vocalises are modest in scope, having a chamber-like expressive manner and together lasting about five minutes in performance. What sets them apart from other vocal works in Vaughan Williams' output is that the composer treats the voice as a purely musical instrument, drama from a text not being a part of the expressive material. It should be mentioned that the clarinet generally serves in an accompanimental role to the soprano soloist throughout all three pieces here.
The first vocalise, Prelude, is marked Moderato, but sounds slower owing to its ethereal character and legato-laden flow, which take away the sense of movement or any hint of rhythmic pulse. It is attractive music both for its melodic appeal and haunting atmosphere.
The second piece, Scherzo, is quite challenging for both the vocalist and clarinetist. It is a colorful, lively piece, marked Allegro moderato, in which the two performers seem somewhat at odds with each other throughout most of the 45-second length. In the closing moments, however, they join forces to sing a more harmonious song.
The last Vocalise, Quasi menuetto, is marked Moderato like the first, but sounds it. The music is more varied here than that heard in the preceding pair. The main theme is attractive but unemotional, while the clarinet accompaniment is a bit playful, eventually inducing the soprano to adopt its springy music. Overall, the three pieces offer charm and color, even a measure of expressive depth (in the Prelude), and will appeal to a wide audience.