Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whose birthday was 210 years ago on February 3, 1809, was thrilled when he arrived in Venice. It was a late, dark night when the quietly moving boat carefully navigated through the famous city. Not being able to distinguish the precise shapes of the beautiful buildings, bridges, and gondolas, and more sensing than seeing the city of Venice, was an exciting opening experience to Mendelssohn. “Italy at last! And every possible delight I imagined, has now started and I enjoy it very much,” he wrote to his family from Venice on October 11, 1830.
Obviously, the gondolas left a deep impression on Mendelssohn. He started working on his first Venetian boatsong, or “Venetianisches Gondellied,” right away and finished it one week later. “I put all my heart into composing and was diligent about it. … I finished another Song without Words,” he wrote in a letter to his family on October 18, 1830. He later specified in his diary, and in a letter to his sisters, that this song was for Delphine Schauroth, a German pianist and composer Mendelssohn was fond of. Prior to his trip to Italy, she had given him an album sheet and he had promised to write a piece for her. His first impressions of Venice inspired him to compose the famous Venetian Boatsong in G Minor Op. 19b No. 6 for piano, and he wrote it for her.
Gondolas are wooden boats of 35.5 feet length and 4.5 feet width. Interestingly, the port side is about 10 inches wider than the starboard, allowing the gondola to stay flat in the water and helping the gondolier who rows from the starboard’s back to have better balance. Gondolas weigh about 1,500 pounds and are decorated with a ferro (translation: iron) in the front of the boat.
The ferro is made out of steel, aluminum or brass and has two functions. One is to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier who stands in the back. The other is symbolic: It looks like a reversed S-shaped metal piece at the tip of the gondola, with six forward pointing prongs, called rebbi, which resemble a large six-pronged comb. The overall S-shape represents the twists in the Grand Canal, and the six prongs represent the six districts of Venice. Gondolas are typically maneuvered by one person, the gondolier, with an oar, which is held in an oar lock, called forcola, on the side of the boat. The typical image of a gondolier is that of a singing boatman wearing a hat.
Historically, from the early Renaissance on, gondolas were part of the Venetian cityscape and indicated the wealth of their owners. Only the elite could afford navigating Venice by boat unlike everyone else who simply had to walk. The richer the owners were, the more special decorations could be found in their gondolas such as special tapestries, leather seats or Venetian blinds. Paintings from the early Renaissance have depicted various kinds of gondolas of Venice.
With respect to February being celebrated in the U.S. as the African American History month and as Black History Month in other countries, it should be mentioned that during the Renaissance many gondoliers across the city of Venice were sub-Saharan Africans and freed former slaves, whose paid work as gondoliers enabled them to participate in one of the most representative and iconic Venetian jobs. Researchers including Kate Lowe and Dennis Romano have published illuminating articles on this topic.
Gondolas have been the subject of many artworks and musical compositions, and Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boatsong Op. 19b No. 6 in G Minor certainly is among the works to pay tribute to this iconic water-vehicle. The more I read Mendelssohn’s letters from Venice, the more I hear the gondola and gondolier in this piano composition, which starts out with a left-hand motive, evoking the sounds of soft and steady water movements. It is in a triple metre (6/8), and the right hand soon opens up and, carried by the floating boat, turns into a beautiful melody like an aria from an Italian opera.
Mendelssohn wrote a total of 5 gondola pieces. Maybe the three best known are the above mentioned Op. 19b No. 6 in G Minor (October 1830), the Venetian Boatsongs Op. 30 No. 6 in F Sharp Minor (March 1835), and Op. 62 No. 5 in A Minor (January 1841). Additionally he wrote a Gondellied, also called Barcarole in February 1837 and a Presto Agitato in G minor (March 1839), which he originally had entitled Gondellied.
Selected Works from the NLS Music Section
Braille Scores by Mendelssohn and by Other Composers
Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix. Venetian Boatsong No. 1, Op. 19b No. 6 in G Minor from Lieder ohne Worte for piano (BRM09842). Bar over bar
Venetian Gondola Song No. 2, Op. 30, No. 6 in F Sharp Minor (BRM34678). Bar over bar
Venetian Gondola Song No. 3, Op. 62, No. 5 in A Minor (BRM09850). Bar over bar
Brendel, Franz. In the Gondola. (Auf der Barke), Op. 103a (BRM13377). Bar over bar
Chopin, Frédéric. Barcarolle, Op. 60 in F Sharp Major (BRM29482). Bar over bar
Liszt, Franz. Gondoliera from Années de Pélerinage, supplément de la 2ème année, Venezia e Napoli for piano (BRM26234). Paragraph format
Logan, Sinclair. Venetian Boat-Song for piano (BRM09577). Bar over bar
Mueller, E. A. (Eugene Albert). In a Venetian Gondola (BRM03219). Paragraph format
Large Print Scores
Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix. Songs Without Words vol. 58; rev. and fingered by Constantin von Sternberg. (LPM00477)
From the General NLS Talking Book Collection
Wills, Gary. Venice: Lion City. The Religion of Empire (DB54491). A history of Venice, Italy, during the Renaissance, focusing on the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.