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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: 4 Ballads / 4 Scherzi
Fryderyk Chopin (1810- 1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Opus 38
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Opus 47
Bailade No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52
Scherzo in B minor, Opus 20
Scherzo in B flat minor, Opus 31
Scherzo in C sharp minor, Opus 39
Scherzo in E major, Opus 54
Fryderyk Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of Nicolas
Chopin, a Frenchman who had been drawn by chance to Poland, through the assistance
and kindness of a Polish estate administrator in France, who, on his return
home, had taken the boy with him and given him employment as a clerk. Nicolas
Chopin was to become a respected figure in Warsaw as a teacher of French, after
serving as a tutor in various families and marrying a poor relation of one of
his employers, Count Skarbek.
Chopin himself was educated in Warsaw. His musical abilities
were given every encouragement and he took private lessons from Jozef Elsner,
director of the Conservatory, before finally becoming a student there. He had
begun to make a name for himself locally, but Warsaw offered relatively limited
opportunities, and in 1830 he set out for Vienna, a city where he had already
aroused some interest during an earlier visit.
As matters turned out, Chopin was to receive relatively little
attention in Vienna now that his intentions were more serious, and the following
year, on the pretext of travelling to London, he obtained a passport for Paris.
ft was there that he was to spend the greater part of his career, recapturing
the spirit of his native Poland, its armies now defeated by Russia, in a musical
language that was entirely his own.
In Paris Chopin had immediate connection with Polish refugees.
At the same time he established himself as a popular teacher of the piano for
the more distinguished families of the capital, and as a performer in the fashionable
salons of the leading hostesses of the day. His style of playing, with its delicate
variety of nuance, its idiomatic pedalling and rhythmic freedom, was not of
a kind to offer serious competition to the showmen of the keyboard, to Liszt,
Thalberg or Kalkbrenner.
At first Chopin regarded Liszt and his Bohemian circle with
some reserve, but it was through Liszt that he was to meet the novelist George
Sand (Baroness Dudevant), a woman who was his mistress for some ten years, before
estrangement as her children grew older and tempers wore thinner. His health
had for long been seriously endangered by tubercular infection, exacerbated
during the famous winter he spent in Mallorca with George Sand in 1837. The
revolution of 1848 and an interruption to normal sources of income brought temporary
exile with recitals in England and Scotland. He returned to Paris towards the
end of the year and died there on 17th October, 1849.
Chopin was largely responsible for the creation of the Ballade
for piano. The word itself describes a kind of poetic composition that had found
particular favour in Germany at the close of the eighteenth century, with the
verses of Goethe and Thereafter the Ballade continued to hold the romantic imagination
as a re-creation of the primitive narrative verse of an earlier age, particular
that of the Scottish borders.
The four Ballades of Chopin are said to have been inspired
by the verses of the poet Adam Mickiewicz, an exile in Paris and a friend of
the composer. The source of the first Ballade, it has been suggested, was the
poem Konrad Wallenrod, a medieval story of patriotic vengeance wrought through
treason, and a thinly disguised attack en the Russian domination of Poland.
Here the characteristic lilt of the music is preceded by a dramatic introductory
passage, a call to the listener’s attention. After this the tale unfolds, a
story of increasing intensity, with moments of serenity, moments of passion,
and what seems to be the recurrent voice of the narrator, captured in the first,
The first Ballade was completed in 1835 and published the following
year with a dedication to the Hanoverian ambassador in Paris, Baron Stockhausen.
The second Ballade was published in 1840 with a dedication to Robert Schumann,
who found it inferior to the first, “less artistic, but equally fantastic and
intellectual”, but suggesting that the more intense episodes had been inserted
as an afterthought. The literary source may have been Mickiewicz’s account of
the Lake of the Wilis, a legend evoked in Adam’s ballet Giselle. Here the narrative
begins at once, in the simplest form, to be interrupted by a sudden, feverish
burst of activity. The voice of the story-teller is heard again, mounting in
excitement and interrupted once more by a passage of fierce intensity, on which
there is the briefest melancholy comment in conclusion.
The third Ballade, published in November, 1841, with a dedication
to the composer’s pupil, Princess Pauline de Noailles, is said to draw on Mickiewicz’s
poem Undine, the story of the water-spirit, subject of Friedrich de la Motte
Fouqu’s fairy-tale and of operas by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Lortzing, as well as
the inspiration of the first episode in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. Undine loves
a mortal, who would be unable to survive her aquatic embraces. The moderate
voice of the narrator opens the Ballade, a tale of love, set against the gentle
rocking of the waves, an intervening episode leading to a recapitulation of
greater passion and intensity.
The last of the Ballades was published in 1843 and dedicated
to Baronne Nathalie de Rothschild. Those who have sought literary inspiration
for the Ballades have had less to say on the matter with this work, with its
contrasting episodes of naive simplicity and filigree complication, although
there are many who regard it as the summit of Chopin’s achievement.
The four Scherzi also explore a new form of piano composition.
Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven the scherzo had come to replace the
more limited minuet as the third movement of a symphony. Chopin, however, made
of it an independent, virtuoso form, subjecting the player to severe technical
The first Scherzo was completed in 1832 and dedicated to Tomas
Albrecht, wine-merchant and Saxon consul in Paris. Three more were to follow,
in 1837, 1839 and 1842. The second Scherzo, in B flat minor, is dedicated to
a pupil, Countess Adele de Furstenstin, the third to Adolf Gutman, Chopin’s
favourite pupil, known for the wide stretches his hands could encompass. The
fourth Scherzo is dedicated to yet another pupil, Countess Jeanne de Caraman.
All four demonstrate the composer’s originality, his own technical command of
the instrument, and those contrasting moods of passionate intensity and tranquility,
the latter quality evident in the Polish central section of the first Scherzo.
The fourth, however, moves nearer to the lighter scherzo of Chopin’s contemporary,
Mendelssohn, who had found their musical languages as diverse as “Cherokee talking
to Kaffir” when they met.
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CHOPIN: 4 Ballads / 4 Scherzi