Nocturnes vs. Barcarolles

Solo piano music forms a large part of Fauré’s output. And, while there are pieces with such titles as ‘impromptu’ and ‘valse-caprice’, the greatest body of work (26 opuses in all) is collected together under two headings: Nocturnes and Barcarolles.

The initial stimulus for these is clearly derived from Chopin, as is the musical style of many of the earlier works. But, given Fauré’s dislike of descriptive names (according to his son the titles were added on the insistence of the publishers – Fauré would, apparently, have called them just ‘piano pieces 1 to 26’), it is interesting to note what differences there are between the two categories: why is one piece a Barcarolle while another is a Nocturne.

Firstly, there’s clearly a question of mood: the Nocturnes, as one would expect, are generally more introspective. Then there’s the tempo: Barcarolles, as befits their supposed roots in Venetian gondoliers’ songs, start, at least, at a faster tempo than the more languid Nocturnes. Finally, all the Barcarolles are in compound times i.e. the basic beat is divided into threes (6/8, 6/4, 9/8, 12/8, etc.) whereas most of the Nocturnes use the simple binary beat division of 2/4, 3/4, 3/2 and 4/4  (Nocturne 7 is a fascinating exception using the very unusual time signature of 18/8!)

Here are two examples: the delicious Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat (1894)…

…and Barcarolle No. 6 in E-flat (1896):

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