The word Barcarolle conjures up the romantic vision of a Venetian gondola gently rocking by the lapping waves with the gondoliers, both fore and aft, singing to the gently rocking rhythm. It is a dream world of sentimental love songs and nostalgia most often reminiscent of popular operas or operettas like The Tales of Hoffman by Jaques Offenbach.

Notwithstanding musical snobs and purists, it is undeniable that Offenbach popularised Barcarolle. Apart from this however his role is not significant in the history of the genre which evolved from the folk songs of boatsmen in seventeenth century Venice via Italian operas and regional music festes into the “art music” of the classical and romantic era by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Fauré and Albéniz among others.

Origin of Barcarolle

Etymologically the word “barca” or barqua, meaning a small boat or barge, when compounded with the italian “ruolo” meaning “rower”, becomes “burcaruola” or “barcarola” to Barcarolle in its common parlance; thus the word simply means “rower of boats” and could apply to any boatsman on any waterway anywhere, not just in Venice. But tradition and mystique have always associated the word with the Venetian gondoliers. Thus Mendelssohn called 3 of his barcarolles Venezianisches Gondelleid, and Balakirev also called his a-minor bararolle a gondelleid.

Stylistically Barcarolle is believed to have evolved from earlier dances of the Italian Baroque period like Furlana (or forlane as in Bach or Couperan), Siciliana (Sicilienne) or Giga (from Jig in English, Gigue in French or German). Neither the Furlana nor the Giga was really Italian in origin, the former being imported by the French to the neighbouring Friuli–Venezia Giulia region (which, although under Venetian rule then was a slavic settlement anyway), and the latter from Britain and Germany via France. The “slavic” Furlana was a fast dance and the Gigue a courtly dance despite its rustic nature, but these all morphed over time into the gentler but livelier dance, usually in 6/8 or 12/8 meters, known as Barcarolle today.

History of Barcarolle

The origin of the genre can be traced back to the operatic renditions during the carnival season in Venice circa 1630, based on the venetian gondolas and their singing helmsmen serenading lovers aboard their gondola in a canal there. The first mention of Barcarolles can probably be found in an aria title “Air des Barcarolles” from the opera La Vénitiennes (1705) by Michel de la Barre.

Another French composer to succumb to the mystique of Venice was André Campra whose three-act “lyric comedy” Le carnaval de Venise (1699) was the first published account outside Italy; Campra’s next compositions comprised a set of one-act comic operas published in 1710 as Les Fêtes vénitiennes, whose prolog (with a witty sub-title that can be translated as “The Triumph of madness over reason in the carnival time”!) lists the first “entrée” as La feste des barquerolles.

During the following decades, the role of barcarolles was confined to the indigenous folk music tradition inside Italy, where the genre was slowly seeping into popular operas whose audience found the sentimental romantic style very appealing. Towards the end of the eighteenth century leading composers, both in Italy and abroad, began adopting barcarolles in their works, mostly in operatic arias and intermezzi. Haydn was among the first outside Italy, and Giovanni Paisiello the first notable Italian composer, soon to be followed by luminaries like Rossini, Donizetti or Verdi in the next century.

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Barcarolle as Character Piece

Mendelssohn and Chopin are usually credited with elevating the barcarolle into a character piece or “Art Music” for the concert stage depending on the composer’s predilections, mostly for piano but sometimes for other arrangements as well.

Probably some of the best loved and acclaimed barcarolles which did not even bear that appelation were a number of Schubert lieder with thematic links to boating or water travel in the text as well as in the music. These came before Mendelssohn or Chopin began their work. The best known one, Auf dem wasser zu singen, was later transcribed by Liszt and commonly known as the "Scubert-Liszt Barcarolle". There were about five or six other leider considered to be barcarolles for all practical purposes, e.g. Des Fischers Liebesglück.

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Mendelssohn: Venetian Gondola Songs

Mendelssohn composed four barcarolles for piano solo three of which were from eight six-part volumes of his songs without words, each with the sub-title, translatable as “venetian gondola song no. 1 (.. 2 or 3)”. The fourth one was little known in Mendelssohn’s life time, and was published without any opus no. or sub-title, and also was in a major key unlike the others. Nonetheless they all show Mendelssohn’s unique melodic and rhythmic gifts, with great popular appeal on account of their simplicity and accessibility.

Just because these gondola songs, like the other songs without words were relatively easy and had a considerable following among amateur home pianists and society ladies, some cynics used to belittle Mendelssohn and these works as mere ‘salon pieces’, below the standards of concert barcarolles, but they have been neutralized by overwhelming approbation by Chopin, Schuman and Liszt who acknowledged these works as precursors in this genre, and by other composers like Fauré and Alkan who were inspired and influenced by Mendelssohn.

Chopin Barcarolle

Chopin wrote only one Barcarolle which to this day remains unsurpassed in its singular scope and originality, and hailed by many as the greatest Barcarolle ever. It is a large-scale ‘concert Barcarolle’ of subtle complexity, in F#-major and 12/8 meter, published 1846.

The daring harmonic and contrapunctal innovations, may seem difficult at first both for the performer and the listeners. Yet after repeated efforts the perceived difficulty vanishes, and the rocking ostinato of the gondoliers’ paddling returns, not unlike in popular barcarolles but with more rhythmic subtlety, and the bel canto can be heard as if emerging from the fog in the Venetian lagoon.

Fauré Barcarolles

Fauré composed more barcarolles than any other composers of the genre. Over four decades of his creative life, Fauré wrote a total of 13 barcarolles, which were inspired by Mendelssohn’s gondola songs, but are stylistically closer to Chopin’s Barcarolle in their shifting harmony and tone colors.

These elusive Barcarolles, in Fauré’s understated style, are not virtuoso showpieces but far from easy as many salon pieces either. Indeed pianists often complain that the notes do not always fall naturally under the fingers as in Chopin or Liszt. This may explain why Fauré’s works are not as popular as they deserve to be.

Other Barcarolles

Liszt started with his transcription of Scubert lieder, but towards the end of his life composed 2 sombre barcarolles (“Lugubre Gondola”). His later compatriot Bartók wrote an unusal barcarolle with striking metrical changes. The French composer Alkan, a virtuoso pianist like Liszt, wrote several barcarolles noted for their musicality. So did the Spaniard Albéniz who composed about 4 pieces which were highly regarded, one (Mallorca: Barcarola) being quite popular as well.

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In the United States Amy Beach was a pioneer with her Barcarolle from Trois morceaux caractéristiques (1894). Several other composers from the new world followed.

Tchaikovsky’s Barcarolle: June (from The Seasons) is both critically praised and popular. Among other Russian composers, Rubinstein composed about 6 highly acclaimed barcarolles. Glinka, Balakirev, Lyadov, Bulakhov all contributed to this genre. Lyapunov’s Barcarolle was hailed as one of the best; Glazunov’s Barcarolle on the Black Keys is attractive too.

Tchaikovsky: Grand Sonata, Seasons Excerpts / Barry Douglas
Anton Rubinstein: Etudes, Barcarolles / Alexander Paley

Not counting the Italian operas, there must have been several hundred Barcarolles, mostly for the piano but often for other instruments or voices as well. The brief summary above includes some notable ones; some unintended exclusion is unavoidable.