019aIn my last post, I laid the foundation for an occasional series exploring the sublime—unmatched and unmatchable human accomplishments that rise above all others, that rise “beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” Achievements which transport us viscerally or intellectually, emotionally or spiritually to a place of great wonderment. As examples, I proposed Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and the sculpture Balzac by Auguste Rodin.

For my next nomination, I ask you to watch a performance of the Barcarolle from the opera by Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffman. Watch it here: (Yes, my first suggestion for the transcendental requires you not only to listen to music which derives its name from gondoliers, but to watch it on social media, no less.) It will require about three minutes for your first time through, but my guess is you will want to hear it again, again, and perhaps again. I’ve imported a translation from the French below.

Sisters Irina and Christina Lordachescu perform the Barcarolle in what appears to be an anteroom of a concert hall in Budapest. They are accompanied only by a pianist. It’s an informal setting, not unlike having them in your own living room.

The musical score is captivating in its own right, and with the lyrics bespeak the throes of sweet passion. (In today’s vernacular, the lyrics are just plain hot). But individually or together do they attain the sublime? Is the Barcarolle in itself great “beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation?”

It is indeed lyrical and wonderful, but my answer is no, probably not sublime.  Check it out for yourself; there are many other performances of it on YouTube, with and without vocals.

For me, it is what the sisters Lordachescu (soprano Irina and mezzosoprano Christina) add to Offenbach’s work which raises this musical experience so far above others. Perhaps even to the sublime.

Their voices are full and confident and gorgeous. But there is also a loving ease between them, an intimate familiarity, a visible joy in the music which they in turn compel us to share. They are not aloof, not removed from us by stage or distance or operatic device. They are among us, as comfortable as family. You can hear it in their voices, see it in in the way they gaze at each other and at us.

How could one possibly calculate, measure or imitate this combination of Offenbach and the sisters Lordachescu? They serve each other extraordinarily well.

Does this performance of this music transport us? Oh yes. Sublimely so.


Here are the lyrics:

Lovely night, oh, night of love
Smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day
Oh beautiful night of love!
Time flies by, and carries away
Our tender caresses for ever!
Time flies far from this happy oasis
And does not return
Burning zephyrs
Embrace us with your caresses!
Burning zephyrs
Give us your kisses!
Your kisses! Your kisses! Ah!
Lovely night, oh, night of love
Smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day
Oh, beautiful night of love!
Ah! Smile upon our joys!
Night of love, oh, night of love!
Ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah! ah!

Source note:

Note: The Tales of Hoffman was first performed in France in 1181.

Photo by J. S. Anderson. Seattle Center, Seattle, WA  



  • I have to agree. Music that’s sung doesn’t always tap into the sublime, but when it does it does so in a way no other medium can match. To me the proof of this is in the sheer number of people who are transported by the same songs and operas — it clearly speaks to something universal in humanity. And singing in itself is an act of power, of creation and unity.

    In the words of jazz historian Donald Meade, “We can all sing together, but we all can’t talk together.”

    You should check out the “What is Soul?” project: I think you’d dig it.

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