The third of Chopin’s four Ballades for the piano has been called “probably the only 19th century ballade with a happy ending (as well as being the only ballade of Chopin’s that ends on a major chord).”
But there’s quite a journey it takes before that happy resolution, both in the literary allusion to a tragic short story by Adam Mickiewicz, and in the technical challenge outlined by pianist Paul Cantrell in his excellent blog and podcast In The Hands:
In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.
Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.
What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.
Click on the piano to hear Chopin Project pianist Kay Zavislak perform Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47.
Find the sheet music here.
Read the Wikipedia entry on the Ballade No. 3 here.
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Dmitri Vorobiev of the Chopin Project performs the Nocturne in B, Op. 62, No. 1. To hear it, Click on the piano!
Here’s how it’s described in the 1905 book A Handbook to Chopin’s Works, by George C. Ashton Johnson:
You can read the entire book on Google Docs here.
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Is this indeed Chopin’s “farewell” to his Polish fiancee Marie Wodzińska? The autographed manuscript has the inscription “Pour Mlle Marie
.” We’ll let the “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”
blog pick up the story…with a tip of the hat…
#1 — In 1835, while in Dresden trying to find a cure or some relief for his “consumption”, Chopin renews his acquaintence with the Wodzinski family, who had lived in his father’s boarding house back in Poland years before. Their young daughter Maria is an accomplished pianist in her own right and Chopin falls in love with her. She is 17, he is 25.#2 — They maintain a strong relationship by letter and see each other periodically as Chopin criss-crosses Europe giving concerts and teaching the aristocracy. Not long after on September 9, 1936, Chopin proposes marriage during a holiday together, chaparoned by Marie’s mother. Marie accepts.#3 — Marie’s family tells the couple that the engagement will not be “official” until Chopin proves that he is gonna live long enough to take care of their daughter! He gets a one year trial period to improve his failing health or all bets are off. He also needs to prove that he can provide a stable home environment. Due to continual travelling and performing, he has not yet set up a permanent home.#4 — So into this milieu marches Georg Sand. They meet approximately October 24, 1836, a month or so after Chopin proposes to Marie. Chopin is ill and realizes he just may be rejected by Marie’s family as decent husband material. Sand is separated and soon divorced from her Baron husband and has 2 children, a boy, Maurice and a girl, Solange.#5 — As luck would have it, Chopin cannot do what the Wodzinski family requires of him. He becomes very ill over the winter months and eventually meets Marie in Germany the early part of July, 1837 after a series of concerts in England and the Netherlands. Marie’s family sees the state of his frail health and instructs her to reject his proposal….by letter….later. By the time he returns to Paris toward the end of July, he receives word of the broken “unofficial” engagement. He wraps Marie’s correspondence and the rejection letter in a bundle and labels it “My Sorrow”.
Other factoids, courtesy of Wikipedia:
This song was heard in The Others and in an episode of Mad TV where Stuart gets piano lessons. It is prominently used in the PC game Alone in the Dark as both the game over music and as a song you can hear if you pick up a gramaphone and a certain record, though this version is played in a different tempo.
Chih-Long Hu of the Chopin Project performs the Waltz in A-flat, Op. 69, No. 1 minor. To hear it, Click on the piano! For information on obtaining the sheet music to the Waltz from the Musicroom, Click on the cover page!
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Chopinmusic calls it “the most ambitious and substantial of all Chopin’s waltzes.”
The Vancouver Chopin Society goes even further, quoting David Dubal in suggesting that this “Grand Valse” is the essence of Chopin:
A case may be made for the Op. 42 as Chopin’s most perfect valse. After the first measures of trill, a call to the dance, there is a melody with a rare lilt composed in double time, with the triple time of the waltz in the left hand. Schumann remarked that “like his earlier waltzes it is a salon piece of the noblest kind.” The composition, Schumann feels, should be danced to only by “countesses at least.” This waltz is the most demanding technically of the series.
Chopin’s official title for the piece is the Grande Valse Nouvelle pour le piano, Op. 42. There’s a fascinating detail of its publication history available at Chopin First Editions Online.
Click on the piano to hear it played live at a Chopin Project concert by Artistic Director Arthur Greene.
Want to play it yourself? Get the score at the Sheet Music Archive.
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Click on the Piano
to hear the Mazurka with its mysterious opening, “a song so sad, heartfelt, naive, diversified and caressing.”
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