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Musical style.






It was through these mazurkas, nocturnes and é tudes that Chopin's piano music acquired its unmistakable sound. While that sound may be explained on one level as a transformation of early 19th-century models, it can also be viewed as a recreation, in terms entirely idiomatic for piano, of Bach's ornamental melody, figuration and counterpoint. All three textural types had receded somewhat in the era of the Classical sonata, and they were in a sense reinvented by Chopin during his early maturity. The next stage of his creative journey was to find ways of harnessing the acquisitions of the early Paris years in melody, figuration and harmony to the needs of (relatively) more extended forms, and this he achieved with the Two Polonaises op.26, the first Scherzo op.20 and the first Ballade op.23. These were all composed around the same time (18345), and for each of the three genres there were to be three further opuses, culminating in the A major Polonaise op.53, the E major Scherzo op.54 and the F minor Ballade op.52, all composed during 18423. In other words the entire corpus of mature polonaises, scherzos and ballades was composed between 1834 and 1843. (Intriguingly, a similar chronology applies to the impromptus, which again consist of four opuses). By the time of his first visit to Nohant in June 1839 Chopin was about halfway through this sequence, having completed the op.40 Polonaises, the second and third Scherzos and the second Ballade.

Paradoxically his interest in the epic during the late 1830s was matched by an interest in the epigrammatic. His 24 Preludes op.28 must count as one of his most radical conceptions, giving a quite new meaning to a genre title mainly associated in the early 19th century with the contemporary practice of preluding in extempore performance. Chopin's pieces, however aphoristic, transcend such associations and demand rather to be regarded as works of substance and weight. Like each volume of Bach's 48 (which Chopin brought to Majorca, where he completed the Preludes), Chopin's pieces form a complete cycle of the major and minor keys, though the pairing is through tonal relatives (C major/A minor) rather than Bach's tonal parallels (C major/C minor). They are the first preludes to be presented as a cycle of self-contained pieces, where each can stand alone issuing a challenge (as Jeffrey Kallberg puts it) to the conservative notion that small forms were artistically suspect or negligible while at the same time contributing to a single overriding whole, a cycle enriched by the complementary generic characters of its components and integrated by the tonal logic of their ordering (Kallberg, 1992).

During these pre-Nohant years (18349) Chopin also consolidated some of the genres already established during the Vienna and early Paris years, including songs (four of those posthumously published as op.74), impromptus (op.29 in A major, the second to be composed and first to be released for publication), nocturnes (the op.27 and op.32 sets, and the first of the two op.37 pieces), waltzes (op.34), mazurkas (opp.30 and 33) and é tudes (the twelve of op.25). It was, in short, an immensely productive period, and the music produced during it can form the basis for useful generalizations about Chopin's musical style. We may begin by returning briefly to texture and figuration. The Etudes op.25 and Preludes op.28 extend some of the subtleties of figuration already found in op.10, and especially the tendency to inject an unprecedented density of information into apparently standard melodic and harmonic figurations from the Classical and post-Classical traditions. The blurring of function between melody and figure in the right hand and between broken chord and contrapuntal line in op.25 no.2 is characteristic (ex.4). So too is the interplay of functions within a single figuration effectively a compound of discrete though interactive particles in op.28 nos.1 and 8 (ex.5). The potent pairing of intricate, variegated figurations and a strong underlying harmonic structure, characteristic of these examples, amounts to a basic ingredient of the style. It is by no means unique to the é tudes and preludes, informing even the apparently transparent, but in reality highly differentiated, melody and accompaniment textures found in the nocturnes.

Chopin's melodies fall into one of two general categories. The most common is the stanzaic melody, whose internal repetitions are modelled on variants of a well-established archetype, the eight-bar classical sentence (consider the second theme of op.27 no.2 (bars 1017), with its two-bar phrase, varied repetition and four-bar liquidation). In broad stylistic terms, such melodies are often similar to, and were on occasion influenced by, those of the early 19th-century operatic aria. The second category is a freer, non-repetitive melody, unfolding continuously in the manner of operatic arioso or even recitative (as in op.25 no.7), or through a process of developing variation such as the familiar opening of op.27 no.2 (ex.6), where the expressive character of the melody results from an unpredictable placing and weighting of the kinds of appoggiaturas which were common currency for Mozart. Characteristically, the underlying regularity of the eight-bar sentence is mitigated by the internal asymmetry of its two unequal phrases, a feature often found in the morphology of Chopin's music. The treatment (as opposed to the structure) of the Chopin melody is characterized above all by a process of cumulative variation and transformation (see the restatement of ex.6), where the melody is enriched by ornamentation, textural amplification, contrapuntal intensification, or elaboration of its accompaniment layer. This supports a general tendency to end-weighted structures, involving the enlargement or apotheosis of materials (as in the climactic re-scoring of the second theme of the G minor Ballade, or the evolutionary, goal-directed melodic extensions of the C minor Etude op.25).

Much of the innovatory quality of Chopin's harmonic practice amounts to either the foreground chromatic elaboration of familiar diatonic progressions or an extension (and speeding up) of the chromatic symmetries commonly found in Classical development sections. Two examples from the polonaises will serve (exx.7 and 8). In both cases the combination of an organic chromaticism and the local attraction of the dominant 7th harmony poses no serious threat to the security of a stable underlying diatonic anchor. In slower pieces such organic chromaticism can be powerfully expressive, as in the well-known E minor Prelude (op.28 no.4) where the opening surface chromatic succession (bars 113) elaborates a simple diatonic progression in the depths. In all these cases the 5th relationship is all-important on the foreground of the harmony, where it is largely without tonal significance. Intriguingly, it is used only sparingly at deeper levels of harmonic structure. The major extended works, for example, conspicuously avoid the dominant as a means of articulating larger formal divisions. Thus the first and third Scherzos, both in a minor key, move to the tonic major for their trios, while the second reverses the procedure in that the D major moves to C minor for the trio (the tandem of B minor and D major in this work is another feature of style in Chopin). Likewise the polonaises of opp.26 and 40 explore tonic, subdominant and submediant relationships rather than dominant, while in the first two ballades, it is 3rd-related regions which dominate the tonal organization.

The underlying strategy in all these cases was to reserve the 5th relationship for the latest possible stage of the tonal argument, where it could function as a powerful structural dominant at the background level. And very much the same thinking informs a general tendency for Chopin to begin outside the tonic. Occasionally this means no more than opening with chord IV or V rather than I (giving an impression of starting in mid-thought), but in numerous works the overall tonal scheme is emergent or directional in character, as in the second of the op.30 Mazurkas or the A minor Prelude op.28 no.2. Usually such pieces can be described as monotonal with a non-tonic opening. But in some extended works, notably the second Scherzo and op.49 Fantasy, the structural tension between two tonal regions (admittedly tonal relatives in each case) is enough to suggest a two-key scheme. In the second Ballade Chopin went further. Here the alternation of F major and A minor refuses to permit a monotonal analysis, and as such the work represents a significant departure from early 19th-century structural norms.

We can identify two contrasted formal tendencies in Chopin's music, the one towards a continuous, strongly directional form, the other towards a sectionalized ternary design, an expansion of the classical three-part song form. In continuous forms the subtlety often lies in Chopin's control of the intensity curve of the piece, which may well be counterpointed against its formal design a counterpoint of dynamic shape and spatial pattern. This is true of miniatures such as the G minor Prelude op.28 no.12, but also applies to more extended works such as the first Ballade, where there is a calculated non-congruence between a strongly directional intensity curve and a static symmetrical design (in both cases it is strategies of closure which bridge the gap between shape and pattern). In sectionalized ternary designs Chopin's concern is to achieve a balance between contrasted elements and to soften formal divisions through common motivic substance, voice-leading connections across the caesura, or (in larger works) transitional materials which mediate the contrast, as in the approach to the central hymn of the third scherzo. In later works, such as the Polonaise-Fantasy op.61, he demonstrates incomparable skill in sustaining a level of intensity across the extended time-span of a large ternary design, not least by strategies of concealment, where the formal functions become clear to us only after the event.

Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek


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