Frédéric Chopin: His Life and Music

Prof. Michael J. Ruiz, UNC Asheville

Frédéric Chopin: His Life and Music

Week 1: Zal

Prof. Michael J. Ruiz, UNC Asheville

Art and Music (Post Renaissance)

"Classical" Music Before Chopin

The Baroque and Classic Periods

The Baroque Period

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The Goldberg Variations (1741)

Long Melodic Lines, Busy Left Hand

The Classic Period

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Sonata in D Major (1780)

Sonata Form (Left hand is supportive rather than a mind of its own.)

The Classic Period

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Sonata in A minor (1778)

Sonata Form (Left hand is supportive rather than a mind of its own.)

The Romantic Period

Transition Composer (Classic-Romantic)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The Waldstein Sonata (1804)

Sonata Form (Heroic Proportions)

The Romantic Period

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Träumerei, "Kinderszenen" No. 7, Scenes from Childhood (1838)

A Free Form

The Romantic Period

Chopin (1810-1849) and Liszt (1811-1886)


Upon one afternoon, when there were but three persons present, and Chopin had been playing for a long time, one of the most distinguished women in Paris remarked, that she felt always more and more filled with solemn meditation ... (Bio by Liszt)


She asked him what was the cause of the involuntary, yet sad veneration which subdued her heart while listening to these pieces, apparently presenting only sweet and graceful subjects: - and by what name he called the strange emotion inclosed in his compositions ... (from the bio by Liszt)


Chopin's reply reported by Liszt: "for whatever might have been his transitory pleasures, he had never been free from a feeling which might almost be said to form the soil of his heart, and for which he could find no appropriate expression except in his own language, no other possessing a term equivalent to the Polish word: ZAL!" (from the bio by Liszt)


"bittersweet melancholy" says Byron Janis (b. 1928)

"Zal Vaccine"

Aural Vaccination

Clipart Courtesy

Sadness in Jazz (Blues)

  • antidote to take the blues away
  • vaccination to prevent the blues

First: What is a prelude?

For the romantic period and Chopin, it is simply a short stand-along piece. In the Baroque era of Bach, sometimes it was a short introduction to another more complex piece or movements.

Preludes (1835-1839)

Prelude in C minor

"Sadness, suffering, a feeling of passing, a feeling of losing everything - that feeling, that very deep suffering which sometimes you feel when there is no sun and you are alone in a cold house." Polish Pianist Mozdzer

Prelude in E minor

Prelude in E Major

What is a Mazurka?

  • based on Polish dance
  • nationalism
  • transformed into a new genre by Chopin
  • not designed for dancing
  • composed for concert performance

Mazurka in A minor (1832-1833)

and a connection to Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Bernstein photo from

The Mazurka and Maria

West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical by Elizabeth A. Wells
She wrote her doctorate on West Side Story. See Elizabeth A. Wells

What is a Polonaise?

  • traditionally most important Polish dance
  • traditionally in 3/4 time (but not a regular waltz 1, 2, 3)
  • traditionally with moderate tempo
  • Chopin context:
    • for concert performance rather than dance
    • waltz-like time (3/4), but doesn't sound like a waltz
    • Polish nationalism (Chopin was patriotic)
    • pianistic enhancements
    • virtuoso piano elements

Some information from

Polonaise in A Major (1838)
Military Polonaise