Mazurkas


Dances of the Soul

By James Huneker.

 “Coquetries, vanities, fantasies, inclinations, elegies, vague emotions, passions, conquests, struggles upon which the safety or favors of others depend, all, all meet in this dance.”

Thus Liszt. De Lenz further quotes him: “Of the Mazurkas, one must harness a new pianist of the first rank to each of them.” Yet Liszt told Niecks he did not care much for Chopin’s Mazurkas.  “One often meets in them with bars which might just as well be in another place. But as Chopin puts them perhaps nobody could have put them.” Liszt, despite the rhapsodical praise of his friend, is not always to be relied upon. Capricious as Chopin, he had days when he disliked not only the Mazurkas, but all music. He confessed to Niecks that when he played a half hour for amusement it was Chopin he took up.

There is no more brilliant chapter than this Hungarian’s on the dancing of the Mazurka by the Poles. It is a companion to his equally sensational description of the Polonaise. He gives a wild, whirling, highly-colored narrative of the Mazurka, with a coda of extravagant praise of the beauty and fascination of Polish women. “Angel through love, demon through fantasy,” as Balzac called her. In none of the piano rhapsodies are there such striking passages to be met as in Liszt’s overwrought, cadenced prose, prose modelled after Chateaubriand. Niema iak Polki—

“nothing equals the Polish women” and their “divine coquetries;” the Mazurka is their dance—it is the feminine complement to the heroicand masculine Polonaise.

An English writer describes the dancing of the Mazurka in contemporary Russia:

In the salons of St. Petersburg, for instance, the guests actually dance; they do not merely shamble to and fro in a crowd, crumpling their clothes and ruffling their tempers, and call it a set of quadrilles. They have ample space for the sweeping movements and complicated figures of all the orthodox ball dances, and are generally gifted with sufficient plastic grace to carry them out in style. They carefully cultivate dances calling for a kind of grace which is almost beyond the reach of art. The mazurka is one of the finest of these, and it is quite a favorite at balls on the banks of the Neva. It needs a good deal of room, one or more spurred officers, and grace, grace and grace. The dash with which the partners rush forward, the clinking and clattering of spurs as heel clashes with heel in mid air, punctuating the staccato of the music, the loud thud of boots striking the ground, followed by their sibilant slide along the polished floor, then the swift springs and sudden bounds, the whirling gyrations and dizzy evolutions, the graceful genuflections and quick embraces, and all the other intricate and maddening movements to the accompaniment of one of Glinka’s or Tschaikowsky’s masterpieces, awaken and mobilize all the antique heroism, mediaeval chivalry and wild romance that lie dormant in the depths of men’s being. There is more genuine pleasure in being the spectator of a soul thrilling dance like that than in taking an active part in the lifeless make-believes performed at society balls in many of the more Western countries of Europe.

Absolutely Slavonic, though a local dance of the province of Mazovia, the Mazurek or Mazurka, is written in three-four time, with the usual displaced accent in music of Eastern origin.  Brodzinski is quoted as saying that in its primitive form the Mazurek is only a kind of Krakowiak, “less lively, less sautillant.” At its best it is a dancing anecdote, a story told in a charming variety of steps and gestures. It is intoxicating, rude, humorous, poetic, above all melancholy. When he is happiest he sings his saddest, does the Pole. Hence his predilection for minor modes. The Mazurka is in three-four or three-eight time.  Sometimes the accent is dotted, but this is by no means absolute.  Here is the rhythm most frequently encountered, although Chopin employs variants and modifications. The first part of the bar has usually the quicker notes.

The scale is a mixture of major and minor—melodies are encountered that grew out of a scale shorn of a degree.  Occasionally the augmented second, the Hungarian, is encountered, and skips of a third are of frequent occurrence. This, with progressions of augmented fourths and major sevenths, gives to the Mazurkas of Chopin an exotic character apart from their novel and original content. As was the case with the Polonaise, Chopin took the framework of the national dance, developed it, enlarged it and hung upon it his choicest melodies, his most piquant harmonies. He breaks and varies the conventionalized rhythm in a half hundred ways, lifting to the plane of a poem the heavy hoofed peasant dance. But in this idealization he never robs it altogether of the flavor of the soil. It is, in all its wayward disguises, the Polish Mazurka, and is with the Polonaise, according to Rubinstein, the only Polish-reflective music he has made, although “in all of his compositions we hear him relate rejoicingly of Poland’s vanished greatness, singing, mourning, weeping over Poland’s downfall and all that, in the most beautiful, the most musical, way.” Besides the “hard, inartistic modulations, the startling progressions and abrupt changes of mood” that jarred on the old-fashioned Moscheles, and dipped in vitriol the pen of Rellstab, there is in the Mazurkas the greatest stumbling block of all, the much exploited rubato.  Berlioz swore that Chopin could not play in time—which was not true—and later we shall see that Meyerbeer thought the same.  What to the sensitive critic is a charming wavering and swaying in the measure—“Chopin leans about freely within his bars,” wrote an English critic—for the classicists was a rank departure from the time beat. According to Liszt’s description of the rubato “a wind plays in the leaves, Life unfolds and develops beneath them, but the tree remains the same—that is the Chopin rubato.” Elsewhere, “a tempo agitated, broken, interrupted, a movement flexible, yet at the same time abrupt and languishing, and vacillating as the fluctuating breath by which it is agitated.” Chopin was more commonplace in his definition:

“Supposing,” he explained, “that a piece lasts a given number of minutes; it may take just so long to perform the whole, but in detail deviations may differ.”

The tempo rubato is probably as old as music itself. It is in Bach, it was practised by the old Italian singers. Mikuli says that no matter how free Chopin was in his treatment of the right hand in melody or arabesque, the left kept strict time. Mozart and not Chopin it was who first said: “Let your left hand be your conductor and always keep time.” Halle, the pianist, once asserted that he proved Chopin to be playing four-four instead of three-four measure in a mazurka. Chopin laughingly admitted that it was a national trait. Halle was bewildered when he first heard Chopin play, for he did not believe such music could be represented by musical signs. Still he holds that this style has been woefully exaggerated by pupils and imitators. If a Beethoven symphony or a Bach fugue be played with metronomical rigidity it loses its quintessential flavor. Is it not time the ridiculous falsehoods about the Chopin rubato be exposed? Naturally abhorring anything that would do violence to the structural part of his compositions, Chopin was a very martinet with his pupils if too much license of tempo was taken. His music needs the greatest lucidity in presentation, and naturally a certain elasticity of phrasing. Rhythms need not be distorted, nor need there be absurd and vulgar haltings, silly and explosive dynamics. Chopin sentimentalized is Chopin butchered. He loathed false sentiment, and a man whose taste was formed by Bach and Mozart, who was nurtured by the music of these two giants, could never have indulged in exaggerated, jerky tempi, in meaningless expression. Come, let us be done with this fetish of stolen time, of the wonderful and so seldom comprehended rubato. If you wish to play Chopin, play him in curves; let there be no angularities of surface, of measure, but in the name of the Beautiful do not deliver his exquisitely balanced phrases with the jolting, balky eloquence of a cafe chantant singer. The very balance and symmetry of the Chopin phraseology are internal; it must be delivered in a flowing, waving manner, never square or hard, yet with every accent showing like the supple muscles of an athlete beneath his skin. Without the skeleton a musical composition is flaccid, shapeless, weak and without character. Chopin’s music needs a rhythmic sense that to us, fed upon the few simple forms of the West, seems almost abnormal. The Chopin rubato is rhythm liberated from its scholastic bonds, but it does not mean anarchy, disorder. What makes this popular misconception all the more singular is the freedom with which the classics are now being interpreted. A Beethoven, and even a Mozart symphony, no longer means a rigorous execution, in which the measure is ruthlessly hammered out by the conductor, but the melodic and emotional curve is followed and the tempo fluctuates. Why then is Chopin singled out as the evil and solitary representative of a vicious time-beat? Play him as you play Mendelssohn and your Chopin has evaporated. Again play him lawlessly, with his accentual life topsy-turvied, and he is no longer Chopin—his caricature only. Pianists of Slavic descent alone understand the secret of the tempo rubato.

I have read in a recently started German periodical that to make the performance of Chopin’s works pleasing it is sufficient to play them with less precision of rhythm than the music of other composers. I, on the contrary, do not know a single phrase of Chopin’s works—including even the freest among them—in which the balloon of inspiration, as it moves through the air, is not checked by an anchor of rhythm and symmetry. Such passages as occur in the F minor Ballade, the B flat minor Scherzo—the middle part—the F minor Prelude, and even the A flat Impromptu, are not devoid of rhythm. The most crooked recitative of the F minor Concerto, as can be easily proved, has a fundamental rhythm not at all fantastic, and which cannot be dispensed with when playing with orchestra.  ... Chopin never overdoes fantasy, and is always restrained by a pronounced aesthetical instinct. ... Everywhere the simplicity of his poetical inspiration and his sobriety saves us from extravagance and false pathos.

Kleczynski has this in his second volume, for he enjoyed the invaluable prompting of Chopin’s pupil, the late Princess Marceline Czartoryska.

Niecks quotes Mme. Friederike Stretcher, nee Muller, a pupil, who wrote of her master: “He required adherence to the strictest rhythm, hated all lingering and lagging, misplaced rubatos, as well as exaggerated ritardandos. ‘Je vous prie de vous asseoir,’ he said, on such an occasion, with gentle mockery. And it is just in this respect that people make such terrible mistakes in the execution of his works.”

And now to the Mazurkas, which de Lenz said were Heinrich Heine’s songs on the piano. “Chopin was a phoenix of intimacy with the piano. In his nocturnes and mazurkas he is unrivalled, downright fabulous.”

No compositions are so Chopin-ish as the Mazurkas. Ironical, sad, sweet, joyous, morbid, sour, sane and dreamy, they illustrate what was said of their composer—“his heart is sad, his mind is gay.” That subtle quality, for an Occidental, enigmatic, which the Poles call Zal, is in some of them; in others the fun is almost rough and roaring. Zal, a poisonous word, is a baleful compound of pain, sadness, secret rancor, revolt. It is a Polish quality and is in the Celtic peoples. Oppressed nations with a tendency to mad lyrism develop this mental secretion of the spleen. Liszt writes that “the Zal colors with a reflection now argent, now ardent the whole of Chopin’s works. “This sorrow is the very soil of Chopin’s nature. He so confessed when questioned by Comtesse d’Agoult. Liszt further explains that the strange word includes in its meanings—for it seems packed with them—

“all the tenderness, all the humility of a regret borne with resignation and without a murmur;” it also signifies “excitement, agitation, rancor, revolt full of reproach, premeditated vengeance, menace never ceasing to threaten if retaliation should ever become possible, feeding itself meanwhile with a bitter if sterile hatred.”

Sterile indeed must be such a consuming passion. Even where his patriotism became a lyric cry, this Zal tainted the source of Chopin’s joy. It made him irascible, and with his powers of repression, this smouldering, smothered rage must have well nigh suffocated him, and in the end proved harmful alike to his person and to his art. As in certain phases of disease it heightened the beauty of his later work, unhealthy, feverish, yet beauty without doubt. The pearl is said to be a morbid secretion, so the spiritual ferment called Zal gave to Chopin’s music its morbid beauty. It is in the B minor Scherzo but not in the A flat Ballade. The F minor Ballade overflows with it, and so does the F sharp minor Polonaise, but not the first Impromptu. Its dark introspection colors many of the preludes and mazurkas, and in the C sharp minor Scherzo it is in acrid flowering—truly fleurs du mal. Heine and Baudelaire, two poets far removed from the Slavic, show traces of the terrible drowsy Zal in their poetry.  It is the collective sorrow and tribal wrath of a down-trodden nation, and the mazurkas for that reason have ethnic value. As concise, even as curt as the Preludes, they are for the most part highly polished. They are dancing preludes, and often tiny single poems of great poetic intensity and passionate plaint.

Chopin published during his lifetime forty-one Mazurkas in eleven cahiers of three, four and five numbers. Op. 6, four Mazurkas, and op. 7, five Mazurkas, were published December, 1832. Op. 6 is dedicated to Comtesse Pauline Plater; op. 7 to Mr. Johns. Op. 17, four Mazurkas, May 4, dedicated to Madame Lina Freppa; op. 24, four Mazurkas, November, 1835, dedicated to Comte de Perthuis; op. 30, four Mazurkas, December, 1837, dedicated to Princesse Czartoryska; op. 33, four Mazurkas, October, 1838, dedicated to Comtesse Mostowska; op. 41, four Mazurkas, December, 1840, dedicated to E. Witwicki; op. 50, three Mazurkas, November, 1841, dedicated to Leon Szmitkowski; op. 56, three Mazurkas, August, 1844, dedicated to Mile. C. Maberly; op. 59, three Mazurkas, April, 1846, no dedication, and op. 63, three Mazurkas, September, 1847, dedicated to Comtesse Czosnowska.

Besides there are op. 67 and 68 published by Fontana after Chopin’s death, consisting of eight Mazurkas, and there are a miscellaneous number, two in A minor, both in the Kullak, Klindworth and Mikuli editions, one in F sharp major, said to be written by Charles Mayer—in Klindworth’s—and four others, in G, B flat, D and C major. This makes in all fifty-six to be grouped and analyzed. Niecks thinks there is a well-defined difference between the Mazurkas as far as op. 41 and those that follow. In the latter he misses “savage beauties” and spontaneity. As Chopin gripped the form, as he felt more, suffered more and knew more, his Mazurkas grew broader, revealed more Weltschmerz, became elaborate and at times impersonal, but seldom lost the racial “snap” and hue. They are sonnets in their well-rounded mecanisme, and, as Schumann says, something new is to be found in each.  Toward the last, a few are blithe and jocund, but they are the exceptions. In the larger ones the universal quality is felt, but to the detriment of the intimate, Polish characteristics. These Mazurkas are just what they are called, only some dance with the heart, others with the heels. Comprising a large and original portion of Chopin’s compositions, they are the least known.  Perhaps when they wander from the map of Poland they lose some of their native fragrance. Like hardy, simple wild flowers, they are mostly for the open air, the only out-of-doors music Chopin ever made. But even in the open, under the moon, the note of self-torture, of sophisticated sadness is not absent. Do not accuse Chopin, for this is the sign-manual of his race. The Pole suffers in song the joy of his sorrow.

 

II

The F sharp minor Mazurka of op. 6 begins with the characteristic triplet that plays such a role in the dance. Here we find a Chopin fuller fledged than in the nocturnes and variations, and probably because of the form. This Mazurka, first in publication, is melodious, slightly mournful but of a delightful freshness.  The third section with the appoggiaturas realizes a vivid vision of country couples dancing determinedly. Who plays No. 2 of this set? It, too, has the “native wood note wild,” with its dominant pedal bass, its slight twang and its sweet-sad melody in C sharp minor. There is hearty delight in the major, and how natural it seems. No. 3 in E is still on the village green, and the boys and girls are romping in the dance. We hear a drone bass—a favorite device of Chopin—and the chatter of the gossips, the bustle of a rural festival. The harmonization is rich, the rhythmic life vital. But in the following one in E flat minor a different note is sounded. Its harmonies are closer and there is sorrow abroad.  The incessant circling around one idea, as if obsessed by fixed grief, is used here for the first, but not for the last time, by the composer.

Opus 7 drew attention to Chopin. It was the set that brought down the thunders of Rellstab, who wrote: “If Mr. Chopin had shown this composition to a master the latter would, it is to be hoped, have torn it and thrown it at his feet, which we hereby do symbolically.” Criticism had its amenities in 1833. In a later number of “The Iris,” in which a caustic notice appeared of the studies, op. 10, Rellstab printed a letter, signed Chopin, the authenticity of which is extremely doubtful. In it Chopin is made to call the critic “really a very bad man.” Niecks demonstrates that the Polish pianist was not the writer. It reads like the effusion of some indignant, well meaning female friend.

The B flat major Mazurka which opens op. 7 is the best known of these dances. There is an expansive swing, a laissez-aller to this piece, with its air of elegance, that are very alluring. The rubato flourishes, and at the close we hear the footing of the peasant. A jolly, reckless composition that makes one happy to be alive and dancing. The next, which begins in A minor, is as if one danced upon one’s grave; a change to major does not deceive, it is too heavy-hearted. No. 3, in F minor, with its rhythmic pronouncement at the start, brings us back to earth. The triplet that sets off the phrase has great significance. Guitar-like is the bass in its snapping resolution. The section that begins on the dominant of D flat is full of vigor and imagination; the left hand is given a solo. This Mazurka has the true ring.

The following one, in A flat, is a sequence of moods. Its assertiveness soon melts into tenderer hues, and in an episode in A we find much to ponder. No. 5, in C, consists of three lines.  It is a sort of coda to the opus and full of the echoes of lusty happiness. A silhouette with a marked profile.

Opus 17, No. 1, in B flat, is bold, chivalric, and I fancy I hear the swish of the warrior’s sabre. The peasant has vanished or else gapes through the open window while his master goes through the paces of a courtlier dance. We encounter sequential chords of the seventh, and their use, rhythmically framed as they are, gives a line of sternness to the dance. Niecks thinks that the second Mazurka might be called The Request, so pathetic, playful and persuasive is it. It is in E minor and has a plaintive, appealing quality. The G major part is very pretty. In the last lines the passion mounts, but is never shrill. Kullak notes that in the fifth and sixth bars there is no slur in certain editions.  Klindworth employs it, but marks the B sforzando. A slur on two notes of the same pitch with Chopin does not always mean a tie.  The A flat Mazurka, No. 3, is pessimistic, threatening and irritable. Though in the key of E major the trio displays a relentless sort of humor. The return does not mend matters. A dark page! In A minor the fourth is called by Szulc the Little Jew. Szulc, who wrote anecdotes of Chopin and collected them with the title of “Fryderyk Szopen,” told the story to Kleczynski. It is this:

Chopin did not care for programme music, though more than one of his compositions, full of expression and character, may be included under that name. Who does not know the A minor Mazurka of op. 17, dedicated to Lena Freppa? Itwas already known in our country as the “Little Jew” before the departure of our artist abroad. It is one of the works of Chopin which are characterized by distinct humor. A Jew in slippers and a long robe comes out of his inn, and seeing an unfortunate peasant, his customer, intoxicated, tumbling about the road and uttering complaints, exclaims from his threshold, “What is this?” Then, as if by way of contrast to this scene, the gay wedding party of a rich burgess comes along on its way from church, with shouts of various kinds, accompanied in a lively manner by violins and bagpipes. The train passes by, the tipsy peasant renews his complaints—the complaints of a man who had tried to drown his misery in the glass. The Jew returns indoors, shaking his head and again asking, “What was this?”

The story strikes one as being both childish and commonplace. The Mazurka is rather doleful and there is a little triplet of interrogation standing sentinel at the fourth bar. It is also the last phrase. But what of that? I, too, can build you a programme as lofty or lowly as you please, but it will not be Chopin’s.  Niecks, for example, finds this very dance bleak and joyless, of intimate emotional experience, and with “jarring tones that strike in and pitilessly wake the dreamer.” So there is no predicating the content of music except in a general way; the mood key may be struck, but in Chopin’s case this is by no means infallible. If I write with confidence it is that begot of desperation, for I know full well that my version of the story will not be yours. The A minor Mazurka for me is full of hectic despair, whatever that may mean, and its serpentining chromatics and apparently suspended close—on the chord of the sixth—gives an impression of morbid irresolution modulating into a sort of desperate gayety. Its tonality accounts for the moods evoked, being indeterminate and restless.

Opus 24 begins with the G minor Mazurka, a favorite because of its comparative freedom from technical difficulties. Although in the minor mode there is mental strength in the piece, with its exotic scale of the augmented second, and its trio is hearty. In the next, in C, we find, besides the curious content, a mixture of tonalities—Lydian and mediaeval church modes. Here the trio is occidental. The entire piece leaves a vague impression of discontent, and the refrain recalls the Russian bargemen’s songs utilized at various times by Tschaikowsky. Klindworth uses variants. There is also some editorial differences in the metronomic markings, Mikuli being, according to Kullak, too slow.  Mention has not been made, as in the studies and preludes, of the tempi of the Mazurkas. These compositions are so capricious, so varied, that Chopin, I am sure, did not play any one of them twice alike. They are creatures of moods, melodic air plants, swinging to the rhythms of any vagrant breeze. The metronome is for the student, but metronome and rubato are, as de Lenz would have said, mutually exclusive.

The third Mazurka of op. 24 is in A flat. It is pleasing, not deep, a real dance with an ornamental coda. But the next! Ah!  here is a gem, a beautiful and exquisitely colored poem. In B flat minor, it sends out prehensile filaments that entwine and draw us into the centre of a wondrous melody, laden with rich odors, odors that almost intoxicate. The figuration is tropical, and when the major is reached and those glancing thirty-seconds so coyly assail us we realize the seductive charm of Chopin. The reprise is still more festooned, and it is almost a relief when the little, tender unison begins with its positive chord assertions closing the period. Then follows a fascinating, cadenced step, with lights and shades, sweet melancholy driving before it joy and being routed itself, until the annunciation of the first theme and the dying away of the dance, dancers and the solid globe itself, as if earth had committed suicide for loss of the sun. The last two bars could have been written only by Chopin. They are ineffable sighs.

And now the chorus of praise begins to mount in burning octaves.  The C minor Mazurka, op. 30, is another of those wonderful, heartfelt melodies of the master. What can I say of the deepening feeling at the con anima! It stabs with its pathos. Here is the poet Chopin, the poet who, with Burns, interprets the simple strains of the folk, who blinds us with color and rich romanticism like Keats and lifts us Shelley-wise to transcendental azure. And his only apparatus a keyboard. As Schumann wrote: “Chopin did not make his appearance by an orchestral army, as a great genius is accustomed to do; he only possesses a small cohort, but every soul belongs to him to the last hero.”

Eight lines is this dance, yet its meanings are almost endless.  No. 2, in B minor, is called The Cuckoo by Kleczynski. It is sprightly and with the lilt, notwithstanding its subtle progressions, of Mazovia. No. 3 in D flat is all animation, brightness and a determination to stay out the dance. The alternate major-minor of the theme is truly Polish. The graceful trio and canorous brilliancy of this dance make it a favored number. The ending is epigrammatic. It comes so suddenly upon us, our cortical cells pealing with the minor, that its very abruptness is witty. One can see Chopin making a mocking moue as he wrote it. Tschaikowsky borrowed the effect for the conclusion of the Chinoise in a miniature orchestral suite. The fourth of this opus is in C sharp minor. Again I feel like letting loose the dogs of enthusiasm. The sharp rhythms and solid build of this ample work give it a massive character. It is one of the big Mazurkas, and the ending, raw as it is—consecutive, bare-faced fifths and sevenths—compasses its intended meaning.

Opus 33 is a popular set. It begins with one in G sharp minor, which is curt and rather depressing. The relief in B major is less real than it seems—on paper. Moody, withal a tender-hearted Mazurka. No. 2, in D, is bustling, graceful and full of unrestrained vitality. Bright and not particularly profound, it was successfully arranged for voice by Viardot-Garcia. The third of the opus, in C, is the one described by de Lenz as almost precipitating a violent row between Chopin and Meyerbeer. He had christened it the Epitaph of the Idea.

“Two-four,” said Meyerbeer, after de Lenz played it. “Three-four,” answered Chopin, flushing angrily. “Let me have it for a ballet in my new opera and I’ll show you,” retorted Meyerbeer.  “It’s three-four,” scolded Chopin, and played it himself. De Lenz says they parted coolly, each holding to his opinion. Later, in St. Petersburg, Meyerbeer met this gossip and told him that he loved Chopin. “I know no pianist, no composer for the piano like him.” Meyerbeer was wrong in his idea of the tempo. Though Chopin slurs the last beat, it is there, nevertheless. This Mazurka is only four lines long and is charming, as charming as the brief specimen in the Preludes. The next Mazurka is another famous warhorse. In B minor, it is full of veiled coquetries, hazardous mood transitions, growling recitatives and smothered plaints. The continual return to the theme gives rise to all manner of fanciful programmes. One of the most characteristic is by the Polish poet Zelenski, who, so Kleczynski relates, wrote a humorous poem on this mazurka. For him it is a domestic comedy in which a drunken peasant and his much abused wife enact a little scene. Returning home the worse for wear he sings “Oj ta dana”—

“Oh dear me”—and rumbles in the bass in a figure that answers the treble. His wife reproaching him, he strikes her. Here we are in B flat. She laments her fate in B major. Then her husband shouts: “Be quiet, old vixen.” This is given in the octaves, a genuine dialogue, the wife tartly answering: “Shan’t be quiet.” The gruff grumbling in the bass is heard, an imitation of the above, when suddenly the man cries out, the last eight bars of the composition: “Kitty, Kitty come—do come here, I forgive you,” which is decidedly masculine in its magnanimity.

If one does not care for the rather coarse realism of this reading Kleczynski offers the poem of Ujejeski, called The Dragoon. A soldier flatters a girl at the inn. She flies from him, and her lover, believing she has deceived him, despairingly drowns himself. The ending, with its “Ring, ring, ring the bell there! Horses carry me to the depths,” has more poetic contour than the other. Without grafting any libretto on it, this Mazurka is a beautiful tone-piece in itself. Its theme is delicately mournful and the subject, in B major, simply entrancing in its broad, flowing melody.

In C sharp minor, op. 41, is a Mazurka that is beloved of me. Its scale is exotic, its rhythm convincing, its tune a little saddened by life, but courage never fails. This theme sounds persistently, in the middle voices, in the bass, and at the close in full harmonies, unisons, giving it a startling effect. Octaves take it up in profile until it vanishes. Here is the very apotheosis of rhythm. No. 2, in E minor, is not very resolute of heart. It was composed, so Niecks avers, at Palma, when Chopin’s health fully accounts for the depressed character of the piece, for it is sad to the point of tears. Of op. 41 he wrote to Fontana from Nohant in 1839, “You know I have four new Mazurkas, one from Palma, in E minor; three from here, in B major, A flat major and C sharp minor. They seem to me pretty, as the youngest children usually do when the parents grow old.” No. 3 is a vigorous, sonorous dance. No. 4, over which the editors deviate on the serious matter of text, in A flat, is for the concert room, and is allied to several of his gracious Valses. Playful and decorative, but not profound in feeling.

Opus 50, the first in G major, is healthy and vivacious. Good humor predominates. Kullak notes that in some editions it closes pianissimo, which seems a little out of drawing. No. 2 is charming. In A flat, it is a perfect specimen of the aristocratic Mazurka. The D flat Trio, the answering episode in B flat minor, and the grace of the return make this one to be studied and treasured. De Lenz finds Bach-ian influences in the following, in C sharp minor: “It begins as though written for the organ, and ends in an exclusive salon; it does him credit and is worked out more fully than the others. Chopin was much pleased when I told him that in the construction of this Mazurka the passage from E major to F major was the same as that in the Agatha aria in ‘Freischutz.’” De Lenz refers to the opening Bach-like mutations.  The texture of this dance is closer and finer spun than any we have encountered. Perhaps spontaneity is impaired, mais que voulez vous? Chopin was bound to develop, and his Mazurkas, fragile and constricted as is the form, were sure to show a like record of spiritual and intellectual growth.

Opus 56, in B major, is elaborate, even in its beginning. There is decoration in the ritornelle in E flat and one feels the absence of a compensating emotion, despite the display of contrapuntal skill. Very virtuoso-like, but not so intimate as some of the others. Karasowski selects No. 2 in C as an illustration. “It is as though the composer had sought for the moment to divert himself with narcotic intoxication only to fall back the more deeply into his original gloom.” There is the peasant in the first bars in C, but the A minor and what follows soon disturb the air of bonhomie. Theoretical ease is in the imitative passages; Chopin is now master of his tools. The third Mazurka of op. 56 is in C minor. It is quite long and does not give the impression of a whole. With the exception of a short break in B major, it is composed with the head, not the heart, nor yet the heels.

Not unlike, in its sturdy affirmation, the one in C sharp minor, op. 41, is the next Mazurka, in A minor, op. 59. That Chopin did not repeat himself is an artistic miracle. A subtle turn takes us off the familiar road to some strange glade, wherein the flowers are rare in scent and odor. This Mazurka, like the one that follows, has a dim resemblance to others, yet there is always a novel point of departure, a fresh harmony, a sudden melody or an unexpected ending. Hadow, for example, thinks the A flat of this opus the most beautiful of them all. In it he finds legitimately used the repetition in various shapes of a single phrase. To me this Mazurka seems but an amplification, an elaboration of the lovely one in the same key, op. 50, No. 2. The double sixths and more complicated phraseology do not render the later superior to the early Mazurka, yet there is no gainsaying the fact that this is a noble composition. But the next, in F sharp minor, despite its rather saturnine gaze, is stronger in interest, if not in workmanship. While it lacks Niecks’ beautes sauvages, is it not far loftier in conception and execution than op. 6, in F sharp minor? The inevitable triplet appears in the third bar, and is a hero throughout. Oh, here is charm for you! Read the close of the section in F sharp major. In the major it ends, the triplet fading away at last, a mere shadow, a turn on D sharp, but victor to the last. Chopin is at the summit of his invention. Time and tune, that wait for no man, are now his bond slaves. Pathos, delicacy, boldness, a measured melancholy and the art of euphonious presentiment of all these, and many factors more, stamp this Mazurka a masterpiece.

Niecks believes there is a return of the early freshness and poetry in the last three Mazurkas, op. 63. “They are, indeed, teeming with interesting matter,” he writes. “Looked at from the musician’s point of view, how much do we not see novel and strange, beautiful and fascinating withal? Sharp dissonances, chromatic passing notes, suspensions and anticipations, displacement of accent, progressions of perfect fifths—the horror of schoolmen—sudden turns and unexpected digressions that are so unaccountable, so out of the line of logical sequence, that one’s following the composer is beset with difficulties. But all this is a means to an end, the expression of an individuality with its intimate experiences. The emotional content of many of these trifles—trifles if considered only by their size—is really stupendous.” Spoken like a brave man and not a pedant!

Full of vitality is the first number of op. 63. In B major, it is sufficiently various in figuration and rhythmical life to single it from its fellows. The next, in F minor, has a more elegiac ring. Brief and not difficult of matter or manner is this dance.  The third, of winning beauty, is in C sharp minor—surely a pendant to the C sharp minor Valse. I defy anyone to withstand the pleading, eloquent voice of this Mazurka. Slender in technical configuration, yet it impressed Louis Ehlert so much that he was impelled to write: “A more perfect canon in the octave could not have been written by one who had grown gray in the learned arts.”

The four Mazurkas, published posthumously in 1855, that comprise op. 67 were composed by Chopin at various dates. To the first, in G, Klindworth affixes 1849 as the year of composition. Niecks gives a much earlier date, 1835. I fancy the latter is correct, as the piece sounds like one of Chopin’s more youthful efforts.  It is jolly and rather superficial. The next, in G minor, is familiar. It is very pretty, and its date is set down by Niecks as 1849, while Klindworth gives 1835. Here again Niecks is correct, although I suspect that Klindworth transposed his figures accidentally. No. 3, in C, was composed in 1835. On this both biographer and editor agree. It is certainly an early effusion of no great value, although a good dancing tune. No. 4 A minor, of this opus, composed in 1846, is more mature, but in no wise remarkable.

Opus 68, the second of the Fontana set, was composed in 1830. The first, in C, is commonplace; the one in A minor, composed in 1827, is much better, being lighter and well made; the third, in F major, 1830, weak and trivial, and the fourth, in F minor, 1849, interesting because it is said by Julius Fontana to be Chopin’s last composition. He put it on paper a short time before his death, but was too ill to try it at the piano. It is certainly morbid in its sick insistence in phrase repetition, close harmonies and wild departure—in A—from the first figure.  But it completes the gloomy and sardonic loop, and we wish, after playing this veritable song of the tomb, that we had parted from Chopin in health, not disease. This page is full of the premonitions of decay. Too weak and faltering to be febrile, Chopin is here a debile, prematurely exhausted young man. There are a few accents of a forced gayety, but they are swallowed up in the mists of dissolution—the dissolution of one of the most sensitive brains ever wrought by nature. Here we may echo, without any savor of Liszt’s condescension or de Lenz’s irony:

“Pauvre Frederic!”

Klindworth and Kullak have different ideas concerning the end of this Mazurka. Both are correct. Kullak, Klindworth and Mikuli include in their editions two Mazurkas in A minor. Neither is impressive. One, the date of composition unknown, is dedicated “a son ami Emile Gaillard;” the other first appeared in a musical publication of Schotts’ about 1842 or 1843--according to Niecks.  Of this set I prefer the former; it abounds in octaves and ends with a long trill There is in the Klindworth edition a Mazurka, the last in the set, in the key of F sharp. It is so un-Chopinish and artificial that the doubts of the pianist Ernst Pauer were aroused as to its authenticity. On inquiry—Niecks quotes from the London monthly “Musical Record,” July 1, 1882--Pauer discovered that the piece was identical with a Mazurka by Charles Mayer. Gotthard being the publisher of the alleged Chopin Mazurka, declared he bought the manuscript from a Polish countess--possibly one of the fifty in whose arms Chopin died—and that the lady parted with Chopin’s autograph because of her dire poverty. It is, of course, a clear case of forgery.

Of the four early Mazurkas, in G major and B flat major—dating from 1825--D major—composed in 1829-30, but remodelled in 1832-- and C major—of 1833--the latter is the most characteristic. The G major is of slight worth. As Niecks remarks, it contains a harmonic error. The one in B flat starts out with a phrase that recalls the A minor Mazurka, numbered 45 in the Breitkopf & Hartel edition. This B flat Mazurka, early as it was composed, is, nevertheless, pretty. There are breadth and decision in the C major Mazurka. The recasting improves the D major Mazurka. Its trio is lifted an octave and the doubling of notes throughout gives more weight and richness.

“In the minor key laughs and cries, dances and mourns the Slav,” says Dr. J. Schucht in his monograph on Chopin. Chopin here reveals not only his nationality, but his own fascinating and enigmatic individuality. Within the tremulous spaces of this immature dance is enacted the play of a human soul, a soul that voices the sorrow and revolt of a dying race, of a dying poet.  They are epigrammatic, fluctuating, crazy, and tender, these Mazurkas, and some of them have a soft, melancholy light, as if shining through alabaster—true corpse light leading to a morass of doubt and terror. But a fantastic, dishevelled, debonair spirit is the guide, and to him we abandon ourselves in these precise and vertiginous dances.



 

 

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