The Barcarolle is a nocturne painted on a large canvas, with larger brushes. It has Italian color in spots—Schumann said that, melodically, Chopin sometimes “leans over Germany into Italy”—and is a masterly one in sentiment, pulsating with amorousness. To me it sounds like a lament for the splendors, now vanished, of Venice the Queen. In bars 8, 9, and 10, counting backward, Louis Ehlert finds obscurities in the middle voices. It is dedicated to the Baronne de Stockhausen.
The nocturnes—including the Berceuse and Barcarolle—should seldom be played in public and not the public of a large hall. Something of Chopin’s delicate, tender warmth and spiritual voice is lost in larger spaces. In a small auditorium, and from the fingers of a sympathetic pianist, the nocturnes should be heard, that their intimate, night side may be revealed. Many are like the music en sourdine of Paul Verlaine in his “Chanson D’Automne” or “Le Piano que Baise une Main Frele.” They are essentially for the twilight, for solitary enclosures, where their still, mysterious tones—“silent thunder in the leaves” as Yeats sings— become eloquent and disclose the poetry and pain of their creator.
X. THE BALLADES:—FAERY DRAMAS
W. H. Hadow has said some pertinent things about Chopin in “Studies in Modern Music.” Yet we cannot accept unconditionally his statement that “in structure Chopin is a child playing with a few simple types, and almost helpless as soon as he advances beyond them; in phraseology he is a master whose felicitous perfection of style is one of the abiding treasures of the art.”
Chopin then, according to Hadow, is no “builder of the lofty rhyme,” but the poet of the single line, the maker of the phrase exquisite. This is hardly comprehensive. With the more complex, classical types of the musical organism Chopin had little sympathy, but he contrived nevertheless to write two movements of a piano sonata that are excellent—the first half of the B flat minor Sonata. The idealized dance forms he preferred; the Polonaise, Mazurka and Valse were already there for him to handle, but the Ballade was not. Here he is not imitator, but creator. Not loosely-jointed, but compact structures glowing with genius and presenting definite unity of form and expression, are the ballades—commonly written in six-eight and six-four time. “None of Chopin’s compositions surpasses in masterliness of form and beauty and poetry of contents his ballades. In them he attains the acme of his power as an artist,” remarks Niecks.
I am ever reminded of Andrew Lang’s lines, “the thunder and surge of the Odyssey,” when listening to the G minor Ballade, op. 23. It is the Odyssey of Chopin’s soul. That ’cello-like largo with its noiseless suspension stays us for a moment in the courtyard of Chopin’s House Beautiful. Then, told in his most dreamy tones, the legend begins. As in some fabulous tales of the Genii this Ballade