Frédéric Chopin: His Life and Music

Week 4: Heroic

Prof. Michael J. Ruiz, UNC Asheville

REVIEW: What is a prelude?

Prelude in A Major

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.

REVIEW: What is a Mazurka?

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

REVIEW: 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

Byron Janis (b. 1928): "Zal is a word that has many, many meanings, but the basic meaning is kind of a bittersweet melancholy."

Leszek Możdżer: "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."

Mozdzer photo Courtesy Kubakocoj at Polish Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link Pronunciation

"And it also means something else," Janis adds. "Liszt wrote about it, saying it can mean 'rage,' which is very interesting; it's a paradoxical thing. Chopin's music had a lot of anger in it, and he admitted that to someone who asked him. He said, yes, most of my music is permeated with zal."

Chopin (1810-1849) and Liszt (1811-1886)
"ZAL! In very truth, it colors the whole of Chopin's compositions."
Franz Liszt (Chopin Bio, 1853)

The C minor and A major (Military Polonaise) can be thought of as companions.

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) remarked that the Polonaise in A major is the symbol of Polish glory, while the Polonaise in C minor is the symbol of Polish tragedy.

Review: Subtle changes in harmony.

Polonaise in C minor: subtle shifts in right hand for "painful Zal" harmonies.

Theme is low and tragic - in the left hand.

The F-sharp minor polonaise and why I am teaching this course.

A Powerful Message

What can the romantic period teach us?

Physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

If knowledge was destroyed, what one message would you leave for others to rebuild?

Feynman: The World is Made of Atoms.

Messages from the Romantic Period (c. 1800-1850)

John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic Poet

Tuberculosis (dies at age 25)

"The Chopin of Poetry"

John Constable (1776-1837), English Romantic Painter

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816)

National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

Polonaise in F-sharp minor (1841)

Dedicated to Princess Ludmilla de Beauveau (Polish émigé in Paris)

The "Tragic" Polonaise

Ternary Form

  • 1. Determined theme following by confident optimism.

  • 2. Fragments.

  • 3. "Mazurka" section.

  • Overall Form: 1-2-3-1 with tragic finale, and defiant forte.

Polonaise in F-sharp minor: ornaments or embellishments (baby notes).

Similar concept in the F-sharp minor polonaise: Surprise chord changes.

Polonaise in F-sharp minor

Middle "Mazurka" Section: "Chopinesque similarity to the Prelude in A Major (c. 1838)"

Nocturne in E-flat major (Op. 9, No. 1)

from the French, a musical composition inspired by or evocative of the night

Nocturne in E-flat was published in 1832 with two other nocturnes.

Dedicated to Madame Maria Camillowa Pleyel

Chopin's most famous piece.

The Raindrop Prelude (most likely Majorca 1838)

The longest prelude.

George Sand and son Maurice return in a terrible rainstrorm.

Found a distraught Chopin who exclaimed, "Ah! I knew well that you were dead."

George Sand. While playing the piano he had a dream: He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might - and he was right to - against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds.

Chopin denied the raindrop analogy.

Polonaise in Ab major (1842, The Heroic Polonaise)

Dedicated to Auguste Léo, a German banker and friend of Chopin

George Sand on hearing the polonaise:
"From now on this polonaise should be a symbol,a heroic symbol"

Though Chopin did not like descriptive names for his music, the nickname stuck.

Source: Wikipedia