A Covid Silver Lining: Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boat song Opus 30 No.6 for piano and mandolin

Last year, during the lockdown, my wife Alison, a pianist, needed a prelude for her Sunday church service.  She asked me if I would arrange a mandolin duet part for Felix Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boat song Opus 30. No 6.  When I heard Opus 30 no. 6,  the mandolin seemed like the ideal second voice to Mendelssohn’s boat song, written for solo piano.  The piano-mandolin duet accentuates the story of Mendelssohn’s unrequited love for pianist and composer, Delphine von Schauroth.  Mendelssohn considered marrying Delphine during his stay in Venice.  Sadly for him, they would only remain friends. 


Before Mendelssohn left Leipzig, Germany for Venice, Delphine gave him a stack of music composition paper.  Mendelssohn was grateful and said, “I will write music for you.”   Mendelssohn had been born into a highly educated and wealthy home in Leipzig, Germany in 1809, and had travelled much of Europe.  Like Mozart, he was considered a Wunderkind. By the the age of eighteen, Mendelssohn was already a prolific composer, having written works such as symphonies, piano and violin concerti, overtures and an opera. 


At the age of twenty-one, Mendelssohn rowed from Treviso “in a dead calm” of night to Venice: We then glided quietly into the great city, under innumerable bridges, without sound of post-horns, or rattling of wheels, or toll-keepers. The passage now became more thronged, and numbers of ships were lying near; past the theatre, where gondolas in long rows lie waiting for their masters, just as our own carriages do at home; then into the great canal, past the church of St. Mark, the Lions, the palace of the Doges, and the Bridge of Sighs.”


His barcarolle (boat song) pulses in a 6/8 rhythm; the piano mimics the gentle rocking of the gondola, and the Mandolin becomes the operatic boatsman, singing with open voice and heart to all who glide by.


The mandolin thrived In local communities all over Italy.   From the folk Tarantellas of Napoli to Vivaldi’s mandolin concerto, (written more than 100 years earlier), the mandolin’s folk sound combined with Mendelssohn’s piano melody allowed us to explore more deeply, a dialogue between mandolin and piano, than a piano soliloquy.  


The opening six measures of piano foreshadow the inevitable yearning for someone that you cannot have.  In the A section, a tremolo mandolin doubles the piano melody and shimmers in multi-colored light on ripples of water. The arpeggiated left hand pulses in a 6/8 rhythm, like the circular motion of a gondola oar as it paddles through the canals. This first melodic sequence ends with a question.  Will Delphine answer Felix’s call?  The  2nd melodic sequence is a painful reality that she is just a figment of his imagination.   


The B section rises like an opera duet with tremolo mandolin playing in major and minor thirds below the piano melody that careens to a high E# sharp.  A sustained piano trill follows as Delphine grows more distant.   The B section repeats with solo piano as if  her love continues to slip away, like losing sight of a vessel out to sea.  The coda continues its downward spiral as the mandolin tremolos in unison for the 1st phrase, then down an octave on the 2nd phrase.  Sustained whole notes rise an octave, a 5th, thus ending in a grief stricken pianissimo. 


The recording of Opus 30. No. 6  brought back many memories of when Alison and I moonlighted as ushers at the Metropolitan Opera House.   We heard many performances of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman and the “barcarolle” sung by Neil Shicoff.   If we weren’t in lockdown, It is unlikely we would ever have worked on this piece.  But now that we were working from home, we have found the silver lining to record music together.  


For more information about sheet music: https://bestpianobook.com/product/mandolin-part-venetian-boat-song-opus-30-no-6/

For on-line mandolin lessons: michaelwilson49east@gmail.com


For more information about Piano lessons with Alison Cheroff (Taubman-trained teacher) visit thepainfreepianist.com 


Michael and Alison retrain musicians who have pains such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome from incoordinate techniques. 

As Dorothy Taubman taught: “Playing your instrument ought to feel euphoric in your body.

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