Friday, August 24, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin, Part 3

Yesterday we started looking at the first ballade, in G minor, written when Chopin was in his early 20s and newly resident in Paris. There are a lot of different ways of looking at a piece like this. It has a lot of the structure of a sonata, with an introduction, contrasting themes presented in different keys, development of these themes and recapitulation of them. There is also a coda, but unlike a sonata movement coda, which tends to relax harmonic tension with subdominant harmony, this one continues the ever-increasing arc of intensity by using more chromatic scale passages, much greater virtuosity and fortissimo dynamics. Some have mentioned the strophic character of the piece, where the same motifs return as a kind of refrain. This goes with the title reference to the literary ballad.

In the last post (if you haven't seen it, go have a look as this is a continuation), I quoted the basic motif of the ballade, which comes in various forms and extensions, but whose basic shape is always recognizable. Here is that motif again:

Click to enlarge

Contrasting with this is the second motif, which instead of a curling, sinuous shape has a more serene, falling contour. Here it is:

Click to enlarge

(Sorry for the sloppy notation--I'm trying out a new program and it has a few quirks. But it saves me a couple of steps as it allows me to save an example directly as a graphic I can insert into Blogger.) The tempo changes at this point to Meno mosso which simply means a bit slower. Notice that while the key signature is still two flats, the key is no longer G minor, but Eb major (there is an Ab in the accompaniment, which completes the three flats needed for Eb major). Here is Horowitz in a recording of a concert performance. The second motif I show above comes just after the 2:40 mark.

The key layout for the whole piece is G minor, Eb major, A major, Eb major and G minor, forming a "tonal palindrome". Beethoven would probably have indicated the key changes by changing the key signature, but Chopin keeps the two flat signature throughout even when, as in the A major section, nearly every note has to have an accidental.

Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, makes a splendid argument for the 'literary' nature of this piece. By that I mean that he presents a good argument for an historical and literary context for the piece. From documentary evidence he shows that one of the inspirations for this piece was the literary ballads of Adam Mickiewicz (1798 - 1855), the Polish nationalist poet. He argues that the strophic aspects of the form reflect the literary form of the ballad and even that the heroic arc of the piece is a prophetic call for a revolution and the liberation of Poland. He suggests that Chopin is "telling a national story" using the abstract means of sonata form and a "complex interaction between creative intentions and critical perceptions."

Now far be it from me to rule this out and Taruskin does indeed assemble a fascinating amount of evidence for these creative intentions and critical perceptions in volume 3 of the Oxford History (pp 367 - 376) but the truth of the matter is that if this were the whole, or even the most important aspect of the piece, then all of us listening to the piece who are NOT aware of Chopin's creative intentions nor the historical context and critical perceptions would scarcely find much of interest in the music. But we do. Most listeners in most places are simply unaware of these things. But are able to respond with real pleasure to the powerful expression of the piece because, while you can listen through that whole historical context, you don't actually need to. It is because music is not semantically delimited the way language is that the piece makes an immediate impact. You do need to be accustomed to this general kind of music, be able to hear the harmonies and so on--in that sense the music is culturally specific--but that's all. Let's listen to it one more time in a different performance:

No comments: