The stars are dimly seen among the shadows of the bay;
The lights that win are seen in strife with lights that die away...
One heart, in all our life, is like the hand of one who steers
A bark upon an ocean rife with dangers and with fears
The joys, the hopes, like waves or wings, bear this life of ours
Short as a song of all these things that make up all its hours.”
Barcarolle, Arthur O'Shaughnessy (1844-1881)
Some have called it an “aquatic nocturne,” but Chopin himself named it a Barcarolle, the song of the Venetian gondoliers. Their plaintive voices, and the songs they produced mesmerized visitors to Venice, including Franz Liszt, who wrote: "Their songs had a special character by dragging certain notes, holding back their voices, which, heard from a distance, produced an effect similar to that of rays of light refleciting on the waves."
Barcarolles - usually in a 6/8 or 12/8 meter, to evoke the swaying movement of a boat on the water, soon became all the rage in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and other musical hotspots, both in the opera house and in the concert hall. And late in life, Chopin, who famously despised the fanciful titles his publishers gave his works (think "Raindrop" prelude, "Autoharp" etude, "Heroic" Polonaise, etc.) wrote his one and only Barcarolle.
All that Chopin had to say about the piece is contained in a letter he wrote in the summer of 1845: “Now I would like to finish the Cello Sonata, the Barcarolle, and something else which I haven’t found a title for, but I doubt I will have the time, for the social rush has begun.”
Chopin may not have had time, but armchair psychologists have had a century and a half to analyze this nine-minute masterpiece….written as his tippy relationship with George Sand was about to capsize. Chopin hated the flowery titles that his publishers gave his music….so why did he call it a Barcarolle? Had the desperately ill composer at last made peace with the world? Was he crossing his own river Styx? And was there anyone on the boat with him?
Chopin played the Barcarolle at his very last public concert in Paris. Pianist Charles Hallé, (later to found the renowned Hallé orchestra in the UK) was in the audience. He wrote, “Chopin played the latter part of his Barcarolle, at the part where it demands the utmost energy, in the most OPPOSITE style, pianissimo, but with such wonderful nuances, that one remained in doubt if this new reading were not preferable to the accustomed one. Nobody but Chopin could have accomplished such a feat.”
Decades later, the sophisticated construction and shimmering beauty of the water-born Barcarolle led Maurice Ravel to describe Chopin’s work as “some mysterious apotheosis....the melodic line is continuous...a gentle melody appears, remains suspended, and subsides softly, underpinned by magical chords."