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Take a Musical Gondola Ride: Play a Barcarolle

“Of course this rhythm is typical for a barcarolle,” I said.

My student stared at me with that glassy expression. She clearly had no idea what I was talking about. I immediately realized that I had fallen into a common teacher trap of assuming that my student knew what I did. So I needed to backtrack.

“Just imagine,” I said, “that it’s a beautiful spring evening in Venice. The Italian sun is just beginning to set, and you are gliding across the water in a gondola. The evening is calm and the boat is gently rocking as the gondolier plies his oar. He sings a song that blends perfectly with the lazy, undulating motion of the boat. That song is a barcarolle.”

I went on to explain…

The barcarolle, also spelled barcarole or barcarola, is a musical form that has its origins in the songs of the Venetian gondoliers. The term itself comes from the Italian word, barca, meaning a small boat.

The musical term was first used by the French composer André Campra in his 1710 opera-ballet called Les Fêtes Venetiennes. The first act or entrée of the work is “La fête des barquerolles,” the festival of the gondoliers. Since Campra’s time, a barcarolle is understood to be a piece with a lyrical melody and a steady, unhurried rhythm, usually in 6/8 time. Pieces like Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Boat Songs” and Debussy’s piano piece “En Bateau” are characteristic barcarolles.

A piece of music doesn’t have to have a nautical theme to be a barcarolle, however. Offenbach’s well-loved Barcarolle from his opera The Tales of Hoffman is a notable example. The melodic and rhythmic features of the piece are enough to classify it as a barcarolle.

How to Play a Barcarolle

The most important aspect of any barcarolle is the rhythmic underpinning. By keeping the rhythmic flow steady and relaxed, you will be able to make the melody sing.

Start by setting your metronome to a nice steady pulse, counting each click as an eighth note. (This is assuming that your barcarolle is in 6/8, as most are.) Then tap the bass line rhythm, counting along and matching the metronome. Try to feel the motion of the larger pulse, the dotted quarter note, while you tap the rhythm. This will help you achieve the slow, rocking feel.

Next, play the bass line while you count. Keep the metronome set to the eighth notes in order to maintain accuracy. When you begin to feel comfortable with the notes and rhythm, set your metronome to the dotted quarter note tempo. To do this, simply divide your eighth note tempo by 3. If your metronome doesn’t accommodate a tempo this slow, you can keep your metronome on the eighth note but count the dotted quarters instead of the eighths.

Then put the hands together, allowing the melody to settle onto the rhythm of the bass. Other useful practice techniques include singing the melody while you play the bass, tapping the bass line while you play the melody, and of course, counting aloud while you play either hand alone or hands together.

Once you have a steady rhythm, a smooth bass line and a flowing melody, you will have a beautiful barcarolle. Ciao! Arrivederci!

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