Thursday, August 23, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Chopin, Part 2

Chopin at age 25
Continuing on with Chopin, I would like to look at (listen to) a longer piece. The four ballades are recognized, not only as challenging and virtuosic, but also as musically profound. Let's immerse ourselves in the first one, in G minor. The Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, was composed in 1835–36 during Chopin's early years in Paris. Like the other ballades, it is a one-movement piece, lasting about nine minutes. How do you structure a piece that long that isn't divided up into sections like a set of variations? The obvious model is the sonata form, which allows a sophisticated use of harmony to structure the overall form. Despite a lot of criticism of Chopin's handling of sonata form, the reality is that he made use of it in very sophisticated ways. First, let's just listen to the music:

Like so much of Chopin, it is both spectacular and expressive! Even more impressive, it is also a unified whole. The opening phrases are mysterious, the first outlining a very remote harmony from G minor: it is an Ab major chord in first inversion, that is to say, C Eb Ab. This harmony, which sounds innocuous on its own, is in a very intense relationship with the tonic. If we write it according to the symbols of harmonic analysis, this becomes clear it is bII6 or a first inversion chord built on the flattened supertonic. This chord is colloquially known as the Neapolitan sixth. It prepares the dominant, as it does here. The second phrase circles around the dominant, D. Finally, there is an odd pair of chords that sound like they should be a cadence, but aren't. The harmonies, analysed in G minor are iv6 to VI4/2. They just sound cadential because of the characteristic rhythm and because at this point we are expecting one. Perhaps it is a kind of substitute half-cadence from the iv chord to a substitute V? In any case, after this introduction, the piece proper begins with the most important motif:

Click to enlarge
In one way or another, this motif tends to permeate the whole piece, right to the very end. There is a lot more to say about the piece, but I'll stop here for today and leave you to listen to the piece a couple more times.

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