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Michael Lenahan, 5/14/14

Theory Essay: Chopin Barcarolle


Chopins Barcarolle is a landmark in his compositional output. As one of
the last pieces, it is one of his most progressive pieces harmonicallythe
harmonic language is, at times, extremely chromatic. It is one of Chopins
few pieces is its only example its genre. For example, there are multiple
Mazurkas, Nocturnes, or Ballades, but he composed only one Barcarolle. The
unique programmatic title is significant, and in the entire repertoire, this
Barcarolle is one of the longest and most developed examples of the genre.
In my analytical essay, I will explore some of the more harmonically complex
passages, and attempt to argue why the piece is harmonically progressive. I
will also analyze the melodic gestures and the piano writing to show how the
piece is particularly in a Venetian style, and how the piece evokes the boat
song programmatic idea. I will also analyze the works form and discuss the
forms traditional and innovative qualities. Finally, I will compare the work to
some other works in Chopins output and argue that the work is one of
Chopins most unique pieces.
The structure of this piece is roughly ABCACD. Short introductory
gesture (m. 1-4) precedes the first A section of the work (m. 4-35) in F sharp
major. The music modulates to A major (m. 35-39) for the B section (m. 3962). The C section (m. 62-71) follows, also in A major. The music becomes
more free and is in a recitativo style and modulates back to F sharp major

(m. 71-84). The reprise of A (84-93) is much thicker in texture, consisting of


big chords and octaves and is more virtuosic than the first statement of A. C
follows (m93-103), this time in F sharp major and like A is thicker and more
virtuosic than its original manifestation. The D section, (m. 103-111) also in F
sharp major, comes next before the coda (111-116) finishes off the work. The
structure has elements of sonata allegro form. The piece presents material in
a tonic key (A section) then moves to another key (B and C sections) then
returns to the original key in a recap of the first section (A) and then
presents the other material in the tonic key (C). This gives the piece the
same natural dramatic shape that a sonata has.
The Barcarolle, boat song programmatic theme lends allows Chopin to
use some unique accompaniment figures and textures. The left gesture that
begins in measure 4 is both accompanimental and melodic and it evokes the
rocking feeling of a boat. The melody that enters in measure 6 is very vocal,
evoking a song. The melody is in thirds, a very Venetian sonority. Later on
the lower voice of the thirds becomes more independent, becoming more
contrapuntal. Perhaps Chopin was thinking of two people singing: a duet?
The quarter-eighth note rhythm of the b section also evokes a rocking
feeling. The melody of this section is less overtly operatic than the A section
but is still songful.
The harmony of the B section is particularly chromatic and progressive
for Chopin, and it is evidence that this is a late piece. The music begins in A

major (a mediant relationship from the key of the whole work). A major
becomes the Neapolitan of G sharp major (an unusual key!). G sharp major
becomes G sharp minor (a very colorful harmonic motion) which becomes ii
in F sharp major. Like before, F sharp major because F sharp minor, and
Chopin uses a IV (D major) chord over a tonic pedal resolving to V (F sharp
major) a very dissonant, colorful sonority. This whole sequence is very
effective and is heightened by the dramatic accented 4-3 suspensions on the
modulations, and the constant V-I oscillating gesture in the left hand.
Another harmonically progressive passage is in the recitativo-like
passage starting at measure 76. This passage contains highly chromatic
voice leading that I consider to be non-functional harmony. For example,
Chopin uses the following chords in succession, I6, vii42/V, N6, V43/VI, vii43/IV,
iv6, V7, I. These chords really dont follow their prescribed, tonal function.
Chopin also respells the V43/VI chord. This chord in C sharp major is properly
spelled E, G , B, D. Chopin respells it F, A, C, E.

C#:
V7/IV
iv
43
43
6
7
V /VI vii /IV iv V I

V7

I6

vii42/V

V7

I6 vii42/V N6

When the A and C sections return, the piano writing is much thicker.
Some of the pianistic textures are unique for Chopin. The lilting left hand
figure that begins in measure 4 returns in octaves. This is the only time in

Chopins output where he repeats an accompaniment figure in octaves. The


left hand beginning at measure 93 is staggeringly virtuosic. This rapid choral
texture is unique to this piece. Chopin uses similar pianistic devices in two
other works, the Nocturne opus 48 number 1, and the third ballade, but both
pieces have a thinner version of this texture, not all members of the triads
and seventh chords are always present in the left hand. These two pianistic
elements set this piece apart from the rest of Chopins output.

Another smaller detail that is unique to this piece is Chopins


expressive use of the indication sfogato. This is the only instance in all of
Chopins output where he uses this indication. The word is difficult to
translate, but the Italian root means to exhale. The far more poetic
translation of this word is opening up like a flower. Chopin uses this word in
a very special place of the piece. Its use is notable because of how rarely this
word is used in music.

The Barcarolle title is important. Chopin only uses this title for this
piece, unlike the majority of his character pieces. Comparing this Barcarolle
to other Barcarolles in the solo piano repertoire, this one is by far the longest
and most virtuosic. Other Barcarolles include three examples in
Mendelssohns songs without words (very short and simple pieces), the
barcarolles of Faure (more contained and less virtuosic), and the first
movement of Bartoks Out of Doors Suite (a short and non-virtuosic work),
and June from Tchaikovskys Seasons suite, (also short and not virtuosic). It
strikes me odd that no other major composers composed a grand, large
scale, virtuosic barcarolle for solo piano, like Chopins. Perhaps they, like me,
regarded Chopins efforts at the genre to be an unsurpassable masterpiece.
This Barcarolle is both one of Chopins most unique pieces, and one of
the most unique examples of a Barcarolle in the repertoire. The uniqueness
of this piece, and the fact that Chopin chose to perform this piece in his last
public performance leads me to believe that he had a particular fondness for
this composition. Structurally, harmonically, and pianistically it is one his
most creative efforts.