Daily Archives: December 22, 2009 7:43 am

Musical surprises #22: There’s a psychopomp in my barcarole

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Standing on bridges makes me all spiritual and contemplative. A psychopompic moment if ever there was one.

Next time you get to a slow bit of a ballet where there’s something a bit wafty and barcarole-ish in 6/8, look out for a psychopomp.

A psychopomp, explains the scholar Rodney Edgecombe in a fascinating article ‘can be either a spiritual guide or a figure who conducts the soul from the zone of this life and the putative next.’ (2001, p.259).  And to illustrate the point, he cites a host of examples from opera and ballet where barcaroles underscore or signify the transition between two worlds, including the opening tableau of La Sylphide (1832), the ballabile of the Wilis in Act II of Giselle (1841), the beginning of the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère (1877), the ‘Panorama’ in Act II of Sleeping Beauty (1890) and the opening of Act II of The Nutcracker (1892). You can add several others to this list, including the ‘Rose Adage’ from Sleeping Beauty, ‘Prayer’ from Coppélia, the ‘White Swan’ pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake, to name but a few.

So when Drosselmeyer takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets at the beginning of Act II of The Nutcracker, it’s not chance that the music is a barcarole, and it’s not chance that we sense we’re going on a journey. It’s part of a web of references in music that have a textual significance for us, even if we don’t recognise it consciously. What I love about articles like this, and books like Raymond Monelle’s (see yesterday’s post) is that they tease out the text beneath ostensibly ‘absolute’ music, and uncover a much more interesting world.

Edgecombe, R.S. (2001) On the Limits of Genre: Some Nineteenth-Century Barcaroles. 19th Century Music Vol. 24 No. 3 (Spring 2001) pp. 252-267. Get article from JSTOR here

Bits of this post were first published in the Dance Gazette a few years ago. I’m not lazy, it’s just that I still find it interesting.