In the final years of his short life, Chopin reached a new plateau of creative achievement. His sketches from these years suggest that the agony of composition, the resistance it set up, wrested from him only music of an exceptional, transcendent quality. And nowhere is this clearer than in the three great extended works of 1845–6: the Barcarolle Op 60, Polonaise-Fantasy Op 61 and Cello Sonata Op 65. When he composed his only Barcarolle, artistic appropriations of this popular genre (effectively a gondolier’s song) were to be found mainly in opera, but there were also examples in Lieder (as, for example, in Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen
and Auf dem See
), and some in post-classical traditions of popular pianism (including some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words: the ‘Gondellied’ in A major and ‘Venetian gondolieras’). However, piano works with this title were invariably simple in design and texture, and usually a straightforward transfer from the operatic genre. So Chopin’s monumental work, with its complex formal organization, was quite unlike anything else in piano music at the time, though it did of course set a precedent (Liszt, Fauré, and many others).
A unique synthesis of extended ternary form, sonata form and fantasy, the Barcarolle is separated from its sentimental archetype by an unbridgeable gulf. And the gulf is widened and deepened by some of Chopin’s most sophisticated harmonies, including lengthy chromatic modulations that are seemingly without a clear tonal goal, and a use of dissonance that extends well beyond classical norms. At the same time—and this makes the work all the more powerful—the composer retains the principal outward features of the popular genre: the 12/8 metre, the moderate tempo, the measured, ostinato-like, rocking accompaniment and the cantilena melodic line led in double notes (mostly thirds and sixths). It is worth noting that these generic features do appear in several earlier works by Chopin, including all four Ballades and above all the G major Nocturne Op 37 No 2, really a barcarolle in disguise. But in the end Op 60 stands as a solitary masterpiece, carrying the gentle swaying lyricism of the vernacular genre through to the powerfully climactic perorations of its final stages.
from notes by Jim Samson © 2009