Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52

I've written several posts on Chopin, including two where I discuss the Ballade No. 1 in G minor. Today I want to have a look at the last Ballade. The ballades, a form very nearly invented from scratch by Chopin, are related to Romantic ballad poetry, which contrasts with lyric poetry in that there is a narrative. It is in the ballades that Chopin comes closest to the Romantic interest in 'program' music, music that tries to tell some kind of story. Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt both excelled at this. But Chopin avoided any specifics in his music, keeping secret the exact inspiration of particular works. Robert Schumann tells us that the Fourth Ballade was inspired by the poem The Three Budrys by the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz which you can read here. Decide for yourself if knowledge of the poem is crucial to listening to the Ballade.

What does seem relevant are things like meter: all Chopin's Ballades are in 6/4 or 6/8 meter which gives them a lilting forward movement. There may be some influence from opera where 'ballade' indicates a narrative song. But what Chopin succeeded in doing was adapting some of the principles of sonata form, which gives music a structure through harmonic tension and resolution. This allowed Chopin to create coherent forms and to give them a drive to a conclusion, something that has a narrative-like feel to it.

The Fourth Ballade, like the First, seems to coalesce out of nothing, as if we come upon someone telling a story that has already begun. At the beginning, much is ambiguous. What is the melody, what the accompaniment? Here is the opening:

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The repeated Gs on top seem to be accompaniment with a melodic figure in the left hand below. But no, it is the G that takes on melodic function as it descends to F and E natural. But it turns out that all this was just laying out the dominant harmony. The real melody starts in the third line, with the fermata. Rather capriciously this melody wanders into G flat major territory after a couple of phrases. If you read my post on the First Ballade, you might recall that A flat major was important there. Both of these are remote harmonies from the tonic. In the First Ballade, A flat is just a semitone above the tonic and, hmmm, this is interesting, in the Fourth Ballade, G flat is also just a semitone above the tonic F minor. These seemingly remote harmonies have been used by composers for a long time. Usually chords built on the lowered second degree, the "flat supertonic" are found in first inversion: bII6. They have the nickname the "Neapolitan Sixth". Typically they are used as a particularly strong preparation for the dominant. Here is what it looks like in C minor:

It works as a dominant preparation because it shares two notes with the subdominant. In C minor the subdominant is spelled F Ab C. To turn it into a Neapolitan you need only change the C to a Db.

Before we go any further, let's listen to the Ballade. Luckily there is a wonderful performance by Arthur Rubinstein that includes the score:

As that theme continues, Chopin keeps transforming it with subtle decoration and harmonic shifts. Sometimes he ends a phrase with a half-cadence on the relative major, Ab major, but then continues in F minor. Around the 2:15 mark we meet a new, slower theme. Here it is starting in the last measure of the first line of the excerpt:

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This theme is set in C flat major, a tritone away from the original tonic, F minor. Right after, the first theme returns, intermixed with the new one. Throughout the piece we will see Chopin masterfully mixing together the practices of sonata form and variation technique. There is much more counterpoint there than in the previous three Ballades. Notice how a new countermelody is introduced around 3:12. As the music progresses there is the feeling of hastening to a climax--this is the narrative element. Around the 4 minute mark we move to the key of Bb major and what seems to be a new theme, though one that is really a transformation of that second theme in Cb. Here it is, where it says "a tempo primo":

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Finally, at around the 6 minute mark, we return to the theme and textures of the opening. What makes this different from a typical sonata form recapitulation (apart from the fact that it comes too soon) is that there is no exact repeat. We are hearing variations on the original themes in all dimensions: melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. The rushing brilliant variations are interrupted by this mysterious passage in chords:

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Traditionally, after the recapitulation, if there is going to be a coda, there is often a movement to the subdominant which lowers the tension--it is kind of a harmonic denouement. I think what Chopin is doing here is something similar. We have had so many rich and remote harmonies that he wrenches us back to the dominant of F minor and then underlines that with these chords, all of which merely outline C E natural G Bb, the V7 of F minor. This gives us a breathing space and sets up the coda, which will give us a brilliant conclusion to the piece. The only thing to do now is listen to it again!

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