Chopin's Ballades


Faery Dramas

By James Huneker.

W. H. Hadow has said some pertinent things about Chopin in “Studies in Modern Music.” Yet we cannot accept unconditionally his statement that “in structure Chopin is a child playing with a few simple types, and almost helpless as soon as he advances beyond them; in phraseology he is a master whose felicitous perfection of style is one of the abiding treasures of the art.”

Chopin then, according to Hadow, is no “builder of the lofty rhyme,” but the poet of the single line, the maker of the phrase exquisite. This is hardly comprehensive. With the more complex, classical types of the musical organism Chopin had little sympathy, but he contrived nevertheless to write two movements of a piano sonata that are excellent—the first half of the B flat minor Sonata. The idealized dance forms he preferred; the Polonaise, Mazurka and Valse were already there for him to handle, but the Ballade was not. Here he is not imitator, but creator. Not loosely-jointed, but compact structures glowing with genius and presenting definite unity of form and expression, are the ballades—commonly written in six-eight and six-four time.  “None of Chopin’s compositions surpasses in masterliness of form and beauty and poetry of contents his ballades. In them he attains the acme of his power as an artist,” remarks Niecks.

I am ever reminded of Andrew Lang’s lines, “the thunder and surge of the Odyssey,” when listening to the G minor Ballade, op. 23.  It is the Odyssey of Chopin’s soul. That ‘cello-like largo with its noiseless suspension stays us for a moment in the courtyard of Chopin’s House Beautiful. Then, told in his most dreamy tones, the legend begins. As in some fabulous tales of the Genii this Ballade discloses surprising and delicious things. There is the tall lily in the fountain that nods to the sun. It drips in cadenced monotone and its song is repeated on the lips of the slender-hipped girl with the eyes of midnight—and so might I weave for you a story of what I see in the Ballade and you would be aghast or puzzled. With such a composition any programme could be sworn to, even the silly story of the Englishman who haunted Chopin, beseeching him to teach him this Ballade. That Chopin had a programme, a definite one, there can be no doubt; but he has, wise artist, left us no clue beyond Mickiewicz’s, the Polish bard Lithuanian poems. In Leipzig, Karasowski relates, that when Schumann met Chopin, the pianist confessed having “been incited to the creation of the ballades by the poetry” of his fellow countryman. The true narrative tone is in this symmetrically constructed Ballade, the most spirited, most daring work of Chopin, according to Schumann. Louis Ehlert says of the four Ballades: “Each one differs entirely from the others, and they have but one thing in common—their romantic working out and the nobility of their motives. Chopin relates in them, not like one who communicates something really experienced; it is as though he told what never took place, but what has sprung up in his inmost soul, the anticipation of something longed for. They may contain a strong element of national woe, much outwardly expressed and inwardly burning rage over the sufferings of his native land; yet they do not carry with a positive reality like that which in a Beethoven Sonata will often call words to our lips.” Which means that Chopin was not such a realist as Beethoven? Ehlert is one of the few sympathetic German Chopin commentators, yet he did not always indicate the salient outlines of his art. Only the Slav may hope to understand Chopin thoroughly. But these Ballades are more truly touched by the universal than any other of his works.  They belong as much to the world as to Poland.

The G minor Ballade after “Konrad Wallenrod,” is a logical, well knit and largely planned composition. The closest parallelism may be detected in its composition of themes. Its second theme in E flat is lovely in line, color and sentiment. The return of the first theme in A minor and the quick answer in E of the second are evidences of Chopin’s feeling for organic unity. Development, as in strict cyclic forms, there is not a little. After the cadenza, built on a figure of wavering tonality, a valse-like theme emerges and enjoys a capricious, butterfly existence. It is fascinating. Passage work of an etherealized character leads to the second subject, now augmented and treated with a broad brush.  The first questioning theme is heard again, and with a perpendicular roar the presto comes upon us. For two pages the dynamic energy displayed by the composer is almost appalling. A whirlwind I have called it elsewhere. It is a storm of the emotions, muscular in its virility. I remember de Pachmann—a close interpreter of certain sides of Chopin—playing this coda piano, pianissimo and prestissimo. The effect was strangely irritating to the nerves, and reminded me of a tornado seen from the wrong end of an opera glass. According to his own lights the Russian virtuoso was right: his strength was not equal to the task, and so, imitating Chopin, he topsy-turvied the shading. It recalled Moscheles’ description of Chopin’s playing: “His piano is so softly breathed forth that he does not require any strong forte to produce the wished for contrast.”

This G minor Ballade was published in June, 1836, and is dedicated to Baron Stockhausen. The last bar of the introduction has caused some controversy. Gutmann, Mikuli and other pupils declare for the E flat; Klindworth and Kullak use it. Xaver Scharwenka has seen fit to edit Klindworth, and gives a D natural in the Augener edition. That he is wrong internal testimony abundantly proves. Even Willeby, who personally prefers the D natural, thinks Chopin intended the E flat, and quotes a similar effect twenty-eight bars later. He might have added that the entire composition contains examples—look at the first bar of the valse episode in the bass. As Niecks thinks, “This dissonant E flat may be said to be the emotional keynote of the whole poem.  It is a questioning thought that, like a sudden pain, shoots through mind and body.”

There is other and more confirmatory evidence. Ferdinand Von Inten, a New York pianist, saw the original Chopin manuscript at Stuttgart. It was the property of Professor Lebert (Levy), since deceased, and in it, without any question, stands the much discussed E flat. This testimony is final. The D natural robs the bar of all meaning. It is insipid, colorless.

Kullak gives 60 to the half note at the moderato. On the third page, third bar, he uses F natural in the treble. So does Klindworth, although F sharp may be found in some editions. On the last page, second bar, first line, Kullak writes the passage beginning with E flat in eighth notes, Klindworth in sixteenths.  The close is very striking, full of the splendors of glancing scales and shrill octave progressions. “It would inspire a poet to write words to it,” said Robert Schumann.

“Perhaps the most touching of all that Chopin has written is the tale of the F major Ballade. I have witnessed children lay aside their games to listen thereto. It appears like some fairy tale that has become music. The four-voiced part has such a clearness withal, it seems as if warm spring breezes were waving the lithe leaves of the palm tree. How soft and sweet a breath steals over the senses and the heart!”

And how difficult it seems to be to write of Chopin except in terms of impassioned prose! Louis Ehlert, a romantic in feeling and a classicist in theory, is the writer of the foregoing. The second Ballade, although dedicated to Robert Schumann, did not excite his warmest praise. “A less artistic work than the first,” he wrote, “but equally fantastic and intellectual. Its impassioned episodes seem to have been afterward inserted. I recollect very well that when Chopin played this Ballade for me it finished in F major; it now closes in A minor.” Willeby gives its key as F minor. It is really in the keys of F major—A minor.  Chopin’s psychology was seldom at fault. A major ending would have crushed this extraordinary tone-poem, written, Chopin admits, under the direct inspiration of Adam Mickiewicz’s “Le Lac de Willis.” Willeby accepts Schumann’s dictum of the inferiority of this Ballade to its predecessor. Niecks does not. Niecks is quite justified in asking how “two such wholly dissimilar things can be compared and weighed in this fashion.”

In truth they cannot. “The second Ballade possesses beauties in no way inferior to those of the first,” he continues. “What can be finer than the simple strains of the opening section! They sound as if they had been drawn from the people’s store-house of song. The entrance of the presto surprises, and seems out of keeping with what precedes; but what we hear after the return of tempo primo—the development of those simple strains, or rather the cogitations on them—justifies the presence of the presto.  The second appearance of the latter leads to an urging, restless coda in A minor, which closes in the same key and pianissimo with a few bars of the simple, serene, now veiled first strain.”

Rubinstein bore great love for this second Ballade. This is what it meant for him: “Is it possible that the interpreter does not feel the necessity of representing to his audience—a field flower caught by a gust of wind, a caressing of the flower by the wind; the resistance of the flower, the stormy struggle of the wind; the entreaty of the flower, which at last lies there broken; and paraphrased—the field flower a rustic maiden, the wind a knight.”

I can find “no lack of affinity” between the andantino and presto. The surprise is a dramatic one, withal rudely vigorous.  Chopin’s robust treatment of the first theme results in a strong piece of craftmanship. The episodical nature of this Ballade is the fruit of the esoteric moods of its composer. It follows a hidden story, and has the quality—as the second Impromptu in F sharp—of great, unpremeditated art. It shocks one by its abrupt but by no means fantastic transitions. The key color is changeful, and the fluctuating themes are well contrasted. It was written at Majorca while the composer was only too noticeably disturbed in body and soul.

Presto con fuoco Chopin marks the second section. Kullak gives 84 to the quarter, and for the opening 66 to the quarter. He also wisely marks crescendos in the bass at the first thematic development. He prefers the E—as does Klindworth—nine bars before the return of the presto. At the eighth bar, after this return, Kullak adheres to the E instead of F at the beginning of the bar, treble clef. Klindworth indicates both. Nor does Kullak follow Mikuli in using a D in the coda. He prefers a D sharp, instead of a natural. I wish the second Ballade were played oftener in public. It is quite neglected for the third in A flat, which, as Ehlert says, has the voice of the people.

This Ballade, the “Undine” of Mickiewicz, published November, 1841, and dedicated to Mlle. P. de Noailles, is too well known to analyze. It is the schoolgirls’ delight, who familiarly toy with its demon, seeing only favor and prettiness in its elegant measures. In it “the refined, gifted Pole, who is accustomed to move in the most distinguished circles of the French capital, is pre-eminently to be recognized.” Thus Schumann. Forsooth, it is aristocratic, gay, graceful, piquant, and also something more.  Even in its playful moments there is delicate irony, a spiritual sporting with graver and more passionate emotions. Those broken octaves which usher in each time the second theme, with its fascinating, infectious, rhythmical lilt, what an ironically joyous fillip they give the imagination!

“A coquettish grace—if we accept by this expression that half unconscious toying with the power that charms and fires, that follows up confession with reluctance—seems the very essence of Chopin’s being.”

“It becomes a difficult task to transcribe the easy transitions, full of an irresistible charm, with which he portrays Love’s game. Who will not recall the memorable passage in the A flat Ballade, where the right hand alone takes up the dotted eighths after the sustained chord of the sixth of A flat? Could a lover’s confusion be more deliciously enhanced by silence and hesitation?” Ehlert above evidently sees a ballroom picture of brilliancy, with the regulation tender avowal. The episodes of this Ballade are so attenuated of any grosser elements that none but psychical meanings should be read into them.

The disputed passage is on the fifth page of the Kullak edition, after the trills. A measure is missing in Kullak, who, like Klindworth, gives it in a footnote. To my mind this repetition adds emphasis, although it is a formal blur. And what an irresistible moment it is, this delightful territory, before the darker mood of the C sharp minor part is reached! Niecks becomes enthusiastic over the insinuation and persuasion of this composition: “the composer showing himself in a fundamentally caressing mood.” The ease with which the entire work is floated proves that Chopin in mental health was not daunted by larger forms. There is moonlight in this music, and some sunlight, too.  The prevailing moods are coquetry and sweet contentment.

Contrapuntal skill is shown in the working out section. Chopin always wears his learning lightly; it does not oppress us. The inverted dominant pedal in the C sharp minor episode reveals, with the massive coda, a great master. Kullak suggests some variants. He uses the transient shake in the third bar, instead of the appoggiatura which Klindworth prefers. Klindworth attacks the trill on the second page with the upper tone—A flat. Kullak and Mertke, in the Steingraber edition, play the passage in this manner:

Of the fourth and glorious Ballade in F minor dedicated to Baronne C. de Rothschild I could write a volume. It is Chopin in his most reflective, yet lyric mood. Lyrism is the keynote of the work, a passionate lyrism, with a note of self-absorption, suppressed feeling—truly Slavic, this shyness!--and a concentration that is remarkable even for Chopin. The narrative tone is missing after the first page, a rather moody and melancholic pondering usurping its place. It is the mood of a man who examines with morbid, curious insistence the malady that is devouring his soul. This Ballade is the companion of the Fantaisie-Polonaise, but as a Ballade “fully worthy of its sisters,” to quote Niecks. It was published December, 1843. The theme in F minor has the elusive charm of a slow, mournful valse, that returns twice, bejewelled, yet never overladen. Here is the very apotheosis of the ornament; the figuration sets off the idea in dazzling relief. There are episodes, transitional passage work, distinguished by novelty and the finest art. At no place is there display for display’s sake. The cadenza in A is a pause for breath, rather a sigh, before the rigorously logical imitations which presage the re-entrance of the theme. How wonderfully the introduction comes in for its share of thoughtful treatment. What a harmonist! And consider the D flat scale runs in the left hand; how suave, how satisfying is this page.

A story of de Lenz that lends itself to quotation is about this piece:

Tausig impressed me deeply in his interpretation of Chopin’s Ballade in F minor. It has three requirements: The comprehension of the programme as a whole,--for Chopin writes according to a programme, to the situations in life best known to, and understood by himself; and in an adequate manner; the conquest of the stupendous difficulties in complicated figures, winding harmonies and formidable passages.

Tausig fulfilled these requirements, presenting an embodiment of the signification and the feeling of the work. The Ballade— andante con moto, six-eighths—begins in the major key of the dominant; the seventh measure comes to a stand before a fermata on C major. The easy handling of these seven measures Tausig interpreted thus: ‘The piece has not yet begun;’ in his firmer, nobly expressive exposition of the principal theme, free from sentimentality—to which one might easily yield—the grand style found due scope. An essential requirement in an instrumental virtuoso is that he should understand how to breathe, and how to allow his hearers to take breath—giving them opportunity to arrive at a better understanding. By this I mean a well chosen incision—the cesura, and a lingering—

“letting in air,” Tausig cleverly called it—which in no way impairs rhythm and time, but rather brings them into stronger relief; a LINGERING which our signs of notation cannot adequately express, because it is made up of atomic time values. Rub the bloom from a peach or from a butterfly—what remains will belong to the kitchen, to natural history! It is not otherwise with Chopin; the bloom consisted in Tausig’s treatment of the Ballade.

He came to the first passage—the motive among blossoms and leaves—a figurated recurrence to the principal theme is in the inner parts—its polyphonic variant. A little thread connects this with the chorale-like introduction of the second theme. The theme is strongly and abruptly modulated, perhaps a little too much so. Tausig tied the little thread to a doppio movimento in two-four time, but thereby resulted sextolets, which threw the chorale into still bolder relief. Then followed a passage a tempo, in which the principal theme played hide and seek. How clear it all became as Tausig played it! Of technical difficulties he knew literally nothing; the intricate and evasive parts were as easy as the easiest—I might say easier!

I admired the short trills in the left hand, which were trilled out quite independently, as if by a second player; the gliding ease of the cadence marked dolcissimo. It swung itself into the higher register, where it came to a stop before A major, just as the introduction stopped before C major. Then, after the theme has once more presented itself in a modified form—variant—it comes under the pestle of an extremely figurate coda, which demands the study of an artist, the strength of a robust man—the most vigorous pianistic health, in a word! Tausig overcame this threatening group of terrific difficulties, whose appearance in the piece is well explained by the programme, without the slightest effect. The coda, in modulated harp tones, came to a stop before a fermata which corresponded to those before mentioned, in order to cast anchor in the haven of the dominant, finishing with a witches’ dance of triplets, doubled in thirds. This piece winds up with extreme bravura.

The “lingering” mentioned by de Lenz is tempo rubato, so fatally misunderstood by most Chopin players. De Lenz in a note quotes Meyerbeer as saying—Meyerbeer, who quarrelled with Chopin about the rhythm of a mazurka—“Can one reduce women to notation? They would breed mischief, were they emancipated from the measure.”

There is passion, refined and swelling, in the curves of this most eloquent composition. It is Chopin at the supreme summit of his art, an art alembicated, personal and intoxicating. I know of nothing in music like the F minor Ballade. Bach in the Chromatic Fantasia—be not deceived by its classical contours, it is music hot from the soul—Beethoven in the first movement of the C sharp minor Sonata, the arioso of the Sonata op. 110, and possibly Schumann in the opening of his C major Fantaisie, are as intimate, as personal as the F minor Ballade, which is as subtly distinctive as the hands and smile of Lisa Gioconda. Its inaccessible position preserves it from rude and irreverent treatment. Its witchery is irresistible.

 



 

 

Copyright © Daniel McAdam· All Rights Reserved