Monday, April 30, 2012

Offenbach - Barcarolle , from 'The Tales of Hoffmann'

You're likely to be reading a lot about the Titanic this week if you haven't already, and you're likely to read more about it on this site before the week is over. But for today, a curious tie-in between the Titanic and Opera Wednesday.

The Titanic's orchestra has long since entered the realm of history for playing throughout the sinking, until the ship itself went under. Much of the discussion surrounds what the band actually played at the end, which is another story altogether. But music holds a strong power of identification in human memory, and it is enough for a few bars of a tune to be played to bring back instantly all the feelings, hopes and fears of a single moment of time. And so it was with the final piece that the orchestra played in their concert in the first class reception room that night. It was the last piece that anyone would hear until the Titanic's encounter with the iceberg, and for Noël Leslie, the Countess of Rothes, it created a memory she would never forget.

That night the orchestra played the Bacarolle from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. It is a haunting piece of music, and when viewed in context of the opera it carries its own watery images, set as it is in Venice with its canals and boats. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1956, whenever she heard the Bacarolle the Countess would immediately feel the horror of that night, the bone-chilling cold of the North Atlantic, and the terror of seeing the great ship go down. It was that immediate, and that total. And here is the Bacarolle, one of the most popular pieces in opera, innocuous in its beauty, complete in the depth of feeling it could reproduce.

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