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A Musical Journey: A Trip to Venice Via Mendelssohn

Sep 07, 2021 05:00PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE

Sometimes we need an escape, and it’s no secret that music has the ability to transport us away from the everyday reality of our lives. It is often said that a musical work takes us on a journey in the metaphorical sense. Some pieces of music, however, owe their inspiration to an actual physical location and can spark your imagination to come along for the ride.  

The other day I was listening to Mendelssohn’s Venetian Gondola Songs for Piano. Venice is a place I’ve not yet had the privilege to visit, even if I’ve seen any number of images and videos of the once-storied republic. Mendelssohn’s music seemed to take me there in my mind’s eye as I listened to the music. In fact, it was the composer’s own arrival in the city of canals during a lengthy European sojourn that inspired him to write his first gondola song.  

Writing home to his parents and siblings in October 1830, Mendelssohn describes his arrival in the city by boat: “…We went calmly into the city…; under innumerable bridges, the landing stages became more lively and many ships lay around; past the theatre where the gondolas… waited in long lines for their masters in the Grand Canal, at St. Mark’s Tower, the Winged Lion, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs; the night’s obscurity only increased my joy as I heard these familiar names and saw the dark outlines, and then there I was, in Venice.” Within five days of writing the letter to his family, Mendelssohn had composed the gondola song and sent a copy to Delphine von Schauroth, a pianist and composer with whom he had fallen in love in what turned out to be a failed relationship.  

While the gondola song was a popular vocal genre heard frequently in operas at the time, Mendelssohn conceived his contribution as part of the “Songs Without Words” piano genre he famously cultivated during his lifetime. Mendelssohn would go on to write three more Venetianisches Gondollieder over the space of 10 years. All of them share a nocturnal, atmospheric quality (three out of four are in a minor key) and feature the characteristic rocking rhythms and 6/8 compound meter that help the music conjure its water-based imagery. 

Mendelssohn’s modest Venetianisches Gondollieder serve as interesting examples of the tendency toward program music (music that’s about something other than just the notes, as opposed to “absolute” music) that became a hallmark of the romantic musical style of the 19th  century. Composers increasingly looked to their own experiences as sources of artistic inspiration. Whether it be the places they lived and visited, the novels and poetry they read, the politics of the day or their own personal struggles, all became fair game for musical exploration.  

If today we accept program music as unremarkable, at the time there was much resistance to the idea of program music and its artistic worth—a chief concern being that in reality music cannot actually depict anything, and it loses integrity and aesthetic value when it tries to do so. But for all of the prevailing skepticism and hesitancy, Mendelssohn’s music inspired by his own travels helped open the floodgates for other composers who soon followed, as I’ll explore in a future Stay Tuned column. 

While the Mendelssohn gondola pieces, just like his “Italian” and “Scottish” symphonies, were inspired by his travels, they can function on the levels of both absolute and program music. The gondola songs can be viewed as generic barcarolle-type pieces, just as the symphonies function perfectly as absolute music when disregarding the descriptive titles. A piece entitled “Venetian Gondola Song,” however, will inevitably point the listener in a certain direction, while the music creates the sound world that invites images and feelings to be experienced uniquely by each listener interacting with the piece. In my own encounters with these works there is also a sense of time and history—not only do Mendelssohn’s Gondollieder turn my mind toward Venice, but they also transport me back in time to the composer’s own era. That’s quite an escape. 

No matter what kinds of journeys life has in store for us, music can take us places that are limited only by our imagination and our willingness to engage. When we give music time and space in our lives, it has the potential to become not only an escape, but also an essential part of the journey. What pieces of music have taken you to a special place? 


Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a postgraduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.