Musical Forms Also Transcend Geography

In this Segment, we will discuss five forms of music:  the Barcarole, the Mazurka, the Polonaise, the Waltz and the Nocturne.  All of these forms originated in one country but were developed all over Europe.


In Italy, a song sung by Venetian gondoliers was called a barcarola or barcaruola (barca boat). Later, the term was used by the French and was translated into barcarole or barcarolle. Jacques Offenbach used the form for the aria “Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour” in his opera Tales of Hoffman (1881), and Frederic Chopin, a Polish composer, exiled in Paris, used the form in his Barcarole in F-sharp major op. 60.  We are going to share with you the aria “Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour” that is also found in the Section called How Opera Became Grand Opera.

Other opera composers (Giovanni Paisiello, Carl Maria von Weber, Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti) used the form.   Leo Delibes’ opera Lakme (1883) has a famous aria,  “The Flower Duet” (“Sous le dome epais”), a barcarolle made famous by Patricia Rozema.  

Arthur Sullivan used the form in H.M.S Pinafore (1878) and Iolanthe (1882).

George Gershwin used the form in his unpublished work Dance of the Waves (1937).  We also see the form in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), “The Kings’ Barcarole.”  Finally, Stephen Sondheim used the form in his show Into the Woods (1987, the song “Agony”).


Poland has five national dances, polenz, mazurek, krakowiak, kujawiak and oberek, some of which were adopted by other nations and used in various European music forms.  The polenz became Polonaise; the mazurek (a combination of the slow kujawiak and the fast oberek) became Mazurka.  But the five folk dances are still performed in Poland and in America.

Usually listed in the plural, the Mazurkas also became known as a distinctive piano composition.  Chopin wrote over sixty of them.  In France, these composers used the form: Claude Debussy; Maurice Ravel ; Offenbach, in the ballet in Gaite Parisienne (posthumously produced in 1938); and Delibes in the first act of his ballet Coppelia (1870).  

As a footnote to our opera exploration, Delibes’ opera Lakme (1883) has a famous aria, “The Bell Song” (“Ou va la jeune indoue?”).  In our opinion, the best coloratura ever to sing “The Bell Song” is Lily Pons. At times, you would swear that you are actually hearing a bell, not a human voice.

We are providing you an opportunity to hear the Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbie rendition of “The Flower Duet.” 

In Ireland, you will find the mazurka form in the traditional dance music of County Donegal.

In the cultures making up today’s Czech Republic, we see the form being used by Bedrich Smetana, Antonin Dvorak and Bohuslav Martinu.

The form is also found in some music in Latin America, the Philippines, Portugal and Sweden.

In Russia the form was used by Alexander Scriabin, Mily Balakirev and especially by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who included mazurkas in his ballet scores for Swan Lake (1877) and Sleeping Beauty (1889) and in his opera score, Eugene Onegin (1879).

In the United States, the music was found in some old fiddle tunes and early Cajun music, although it is no longer in active use.


The term comes from the Polish dance, the polenz.  The Polonaise became a distinctive piano form listed in compositions under its french name.

The French term has been used to describe piano compositions, and best known are the Chopin Polonaises.  However, all of the Bachs (starting with Johann Sebastian Bach) composed music using the form, as did Georg Philipp Telemann, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Modest Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

The Italian term is Polacca, usually notated in the score as alla polacca.  We can find this form of music in the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto op. 56 (Rondo alla polacca), Beethoven’s fourth movement in his Serenade in D major, Op. 8 (Allegretto alla Polacca) and in the finale of Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano” (Rondo alla polacca).

John Philip Sousa wrote the Presidential Polonaise in 1886 at the request of President Chester Arthur, who died before it could be performed.


We have another folk dance of various origins, going back as far as the 16th Century.  However, it is the peasant dance (the “Walzer”) found in Bavaria, Tyrol and Styria that seems to form the basis of the great Viennese Waltzes of the 19th Century.

Books sprang up to explain how to execute the dance steps; pamphlets also sprang up to excoriate those who chose to dance so close to one another, in what some called an intimate embrace on the dance floor.

During the 19th Century, the dance spread around the world.  We now refer to two versions of the Waltz: the Viennese Waltz (fast tempo) and the Slow Waltz, although there are as many variations of the form as there are communities around the world.

Of special note to us is the Vernon and Irene Castle version of the ragtime dance, “Hesitation Waltz,” and their version of the simplified Foxtrot dance that was popularized in Irving Berlin’s first score, Watch Your Step (1914.31).


It is reported that the first Nocturnes to be written under that specific name were by the Irish composer, John Field.  Here is Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op.9, No. 2.