Discussion and performance practice of Chopin's four Ballades.
The very famous photo of Chopin
Of all the composers of music for the piano, Chopin holds the enviable position of being the one whose music is most frequently performed. His contemporaries, perhaps from jealousy, were sometimes slighting; yet, despite their derogatory epithets, the fact remains that Chopin invented a keyboard style that fitted ideally into nineteenth-century Romanticism. All his works demand of the player not only a flawless touch and technique but also an imaginative use of the pedals and a discreet application of tempo rubato, which Chopin himself described as a slight pushing or holding back within the phrase of the right-hand while the left-hand continues in strict time. His music is tinged with melancholy, suggesting a never-ending search for the unattainable, yet invariably it is arrayed in an impeccable technical structure.
The title Ballade implies a story, legend, or poetic narration, full of drama and surprise - sometimes romantic, others tragic. In the single movement Ballade, Chopin created a musical form of his own. Intending this form to be the musical counterpart of the literary ballad, Chopin's large-proportioned Ballades could stand formally alongside the large ballads of Goethe and Schiller. While they are not programmatic, the Ballades are nonetheless full of epic and poetic inspiration and encompass a broad range of emotions. It is believed that the Ballades received their inspiration from poems by the composer's friend and compatriot, Adam Mickiewicz. However, Chopin himself left no record of any extramusical meaning to any of the Ballades; the shared romantic aura is their only connection with poetry.
Chopin composed four Ballades between 1831 and 1842. These works were not conceived as a group, and there does not seem to be a predetermined plan in their structure, or in the thematic deployment and development. The only set principle is their free composition, as the form of each of the four Ballades is self-generative. Other composers after him - Fauré, Franck, Vieuxtemps, Liszt, Dukas, and Brahms, for example - adopted Chopin's "invention," the Ballade, but they all used a stricter form, usually three-part song form. This is especially true of Brahms, whose Ballades could claim equal renown as those by his predecessor. In another example, Grieg's Ballade in Form von Varationen über eine norwedische Melodie, is closer to the literary ballad than Chopin's works in this form. Unencumbered by conventions, the Polish composer gave free rein to his inspiration in the Ballades, as his genius chose not to accommodate the constraints of traditional forms or rules.
Each of Chopin's Ballades is constructed on two primary melodies and the listener can find in them techniques related to the sonata, rondo and variation forms. In each work, the beauty enfolds as the thematic material is successively transformed, supported by a rich harmonic framework. Another common feature of the Ballades is their compound meters - whose rhythms convey a certain feeling of narration in musical terms.
Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
Chopin began to compose his Ballade No. 1 in G minor in the spring of 1831, but as the result of his grief and anger at the Russian invasion of Poland, he put the piece aside for four years. He finally completed the work in 1835 while living in self-exile in Paris. A popular theory is that this work derived its inspiration from the Mickiewicz poem Konrad Wallerod, which describes a battle between Lithuanian pagans and Christian knights.
Of the four Ballades, the first conveys a narrative nature, more so than its other three partnered works. The tonally ambiguous introduction is suggestive of the "once-upon-a-time" analogy. The first theme is anguished, while the second theme is more consoling. As the themes are developed a climax is reached and the work concludes with an strong and passionate coda.
At the first performance, the G minor Ballade elicited praise from Liszt and Schumann. Schumann wrote: "I have a new Ballade of Chopin's. I think it is his most genius-inspired work; and I told him this, that it's my favorite among all. After a long, thoughtful pause, he said with great emphasis, 'That pleases me; it is my favorite too." (This was in 1836, before the last three Ballades had been written.) The work bears a dedication to "M. le Baron de Stockhausen."
Ballade in F major, Op. 38
Although he had begun the second Ballade in 1836, Chopin revised it during the winter of 1838 which he spent in the spellbinding company of his inspirational paramour, writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant). They lived in an abandoned monastery in Majorca in a room the composer described as having "the shape of a tall coffin." He revised the work again in 1839, dedicating it to Schumann, probably in return for the latter's dedication of Kreisleriana to him the previous year. Interestingly, the copy of Schumann's work was found after Chopin's death with the leaves of the pages uncut - a terrible insult to Schumann, had he known. In fact, Chopin had even changed the original dedication "Friend Robert Schumann" to "Mr. Robert Schumann;" always the exiled patriot at heart, the Polish Chopin had little respect for the German Schumann.
With its unique structure, the Second Ballade contains the most highly contrasted thematic material of the four works as the themes are deployed in well-defined, alternating blocks. The first theme, a restful Andantino, exhibits innocence and great sensitivity. The highly-contrasting second theme, Presto con fuoco, is characterized by its dramatic, nearly violent outburst of cascading notes. As each thematic block returns, it does so in variational form. As the music leads to a seemingly triumphant climax, the opening theme returns for one last, brief moment to bring the work to its quiet conclusion.
Ballade in A flat major, Op. 47
The Ballade in A flat major, Op. 47, the third work of the genre, was composed during Chopin's most prolific period in 1840-41, years of relative happiness in the composer's life and when his involvement with George Sand was at its prime. Liszt once claimed that Chopin had improvised the piece on a whim for the poet Heinrich Heine; the story goes that the composer wanted to make a musical commentary on the poem Willi by Mickiewicz, recounting the adventures of the water-sprite Ondine, sister to Lorelei. The work was first heard in public in February of 1842 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, during a concert given by Chopin and the singer Pauline Viardot-García.
In this Ballade, two themes are developed in a freely adapted sonata form. The mood is playful before the darker mood of the development section in C-sharp minor is reached. The third Ballade was dedicated to a pupil, Mlle. Pauline de Noailles, who is said to have remarked, "There is moonlight in this music, and sunlight too."
Ballade in F minor, Op. 52
The Ballade No. 4 in F minor was composed in 1842 at the chateau owned by George Sand and it was published the next year. The work bears a dedication to "Madame la Baronne C. de Rothschild;" four years later Chopin was to dedicate the Barcarolle, Op. 60 to her husband. Regarded by some as Chopin's most aristocratic composition, this last Ballade is a glorious climax to the three preceding ones.
The Fourth Ballade has the character of a heroic and epic story. It was supposedly inspired by the Lithuanian ballad of the Budrys, concerning heroism and love during the war of the Lettons against the Russians, Teutons and Poles. The F minor Ballade begins somewhat tentatively in a nocturne-like manner and unfolds slowly. The main theme, which has the quality of a slow and mournful waltz, builds in intensity to become tumultuous and dramatic. With great urgency, the music propels forward until the blazing coda is reached.
* Author's addendum:
* The cover image is the 1838 Delacroix painting of author George Sand, whose influence and love inspired many of Chopin's greatest works in his adult lifetime.
* The links above include the complete group of Chopin's Ballades performed by Krystian Zimerman. He's always been somewhat controversial in his interpretations of the classics, but most often, he seems to be true to the form of origins. I also worked for him for a number of years, so I rather like these performances. They provide a beautifully realistic view of this composer's perceptions of music, art and literature of the 1830s-40s coupled with his incredibly flawless technique and understanding of Chopin's subtleties. These are only examples. Please support working artists and musicians and purchase music and art legally. Thank you.