COMPOSITIONS compositions


In the summer of 1845, alongside new mazurkas and songs, the Barcarolle was written – a work that intoxicates with the beauty of its sound and thrills with its seethingly ardent expression. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the last of the three Mazurkas, Op. 59, composed in the key of F sharp minor, ends with a switch to the bright F sharp major. And it is in that same F sharp major – a rare key in Chopin – that the Barcarolle begins. It is also in shades of F sharp major (as the work’s main key) that the Barcarolle’s musical narrative proceeds, departing from it and returning to it again.

We do not know when and in what circumstances the idea for this music was conceived. Chopin never visited Venice. He had but a fleeting encounter with Italian landscapes and atmosphere on a boat trip from Marseilles to Genoa. A storm at sea was perhaps more likely to have impressed itself onto his memory of that fatiguing expedition than any image of the city. It is assumed that Chopin could have been given the idea of composing a barcarolle, as well as a prototype for its shape and character, by works in that genre which functioned in the current musical repertoire, especially in opera, and above all in Rossini and Auber. All the operatic barcarolles by those composers were well known to Chopin. He could not possibly have forgotten the barcarolles from Guilllaume Tell, La muette de Portici or Fra Diavolo.

The barcarolle genre was becoming increasingly popular in vocal and pianistic lyricism. We know that Chopin gave his pupils Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worten to play. The sixth number in the first book of the Songs without Words bears the title ‘Venezianisches Gondellied’ [Venetian boat song]. This could certainly have been a path for Chopin into the convention of the nineteenth-century barcarolle. Yet in Chopin’s Barcarolle there are no references to either the historical tradition of the songs of the Venetian gondoliers (as do appear in Liszt’s ‘Venezia e Napoli’) or the banal idiom of the opera-salon barcarolle of the day, which would soon reach its pinnacle with the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. In Chopin’s Barcarolle, beneath the cloak of the generic convention, we find music that encapsulates his supreme pianistic experience and the musical maturity that he had attained during this rather reflective phase, and at the same time music that echoes his experience of the whole Mediterranean south of Europe: the Italian songs of Lina Freppa, Bellini’s bel canto, the passionate Spanish songs of Pauline Viardot, which Chopin listened to in rapture, and the wild, but incredibly beautiful landscape of Majorca.

After the opening gesture, and after the leading rhythm has been given by the ostinato of the bass, the Barcarolle’s principal melody appears. It might actually be said to emerge, out of silence, already mellifluous, songful, ringing with its thirds and sixths, and then its series of trills, flush with tenderness, subjected to a wave that rises and falls. Then it is repeated, still sounding restrained, yet reaching a peak. A moment of quietude, then once again, out of silence – in the key of A major, borne by the pulse of a different accompaniment – a new melody appears, which fills the middle of the work. It is just as songful, yet muffled, sotto voce, and at the same time restless, counterpointed by a second voice. After a while this melody also erupts, reaching for brighter sonorities, powerful or passionate.

Yet for all its beauty, the music of the opening is merely a preface to the further phases in the work’s development. One peculiar, extraordinary moment comes at the point which Chopin defines with the words dolce sfogato and precedes with a lead-in filled with hushed mystery. That enigmatic, unfathomed dolce sfogato then starts to develop and bloom.

In his Notes on Chopin, André Gide went into raptures: ‘Sfogato, he wrote; has any other musician ever used this word, would he have ever had the desire, the need, to indicate the airing, the breath of breeze, which, interrupting the rhythm, contrary to all hope, comes freshening and perfuming the middle of his barcarolle?’[i]

The sfogato opens the way to a return of the initial theme, in the fullness of absolute strength, power and passionate expression – to an apotheosis of feelings. There follows the music of the finale: a moment of ecstasy, and then the closing subsidence and the four sonorous strikes, like a distinct gesture of closure. Chopin must have been happy with his work, as he played the Barcarolle often and with relish: in Paris, London and Scotland.

In the history of this work’s reception, one hears not a single disparaging voice, yet many attempts have been made to interpret the sense of this work, its extra-musical message. Some have included the Barcarolle among the nocturnes. Wilhelm von Lenz noted down the interpretation of the celebrated pianist Carl Tausig: ‘This tells of two persons, of a love-scene in a secret gondola’.[ii] Marceli A. Szulc struck a similar tone: ‘This nocturne, hushed like a ballade, brings a duet between a couple of lovers – threatened for a moment by death’. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz saw in the Barcarolle an impressionistic landscape with a pantheistic sound. He interpreted the dolce sfogato as a moment of catharsis, ecstasy and cleansing. Karol Stromenger went further still. For him, the Barcarolle combined the erotic with the messianic, evoking Zygmunt Krasiński’s Przedświt [Before the dawn], inspired by his feelings for Delfina Potocka.

A penetrating new hermeneutic analysis was offered in recent years by Maria Piotrowska. Beneath the mask of an Italian gondoliera, she saw music that was sublimated and biographically marked. She heard ‘boundless good cheer, delight and bestillment’, a sense of ‘confirmation in the world of one’s own values’, though at the same time also a bitter ‘grimace of irony’ and a ‘farewell to this world’. Hugo Leichtentritt expressed his perception, interpretation and experiencing of this work with the following words: ‘a work of bewildering beauty’.

[i] André Gide, Notes on Chopin, tr. Bernard Frechtman (New York, 1949), 30–31.

[ii] Wilhelm von Lenz, The Great Piano Virtuosos of Our Time, tr. Madeleine R. Baker (New York, 1899), 92.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II


The Real Chopin »

Tatiana Shebanova

Barcarolle, Op. 60
Gallery »
mini mini