Chopin's Polonaises: Heroic Hymns of Battle


[This is taken from James Huneker's Chopin; The Man and His Music.]

How is one to reconcile “the want of manliness, moral and intellectual,” which Hadow asserts is “the one great limitation of Chopin’s province,” with the power, splendor and courage of the Polonaises? Here are the cannon buried in flowers of Robert Schumann, here overwhelming evidences of versatility, virility and passion. Chopin blinded his critics and admirers alike; a delicate, puny fellow, he could play the piano on occasion like a devil incarnate. He, too, had his demon as well as Liszt, and only, as Ehlert puts it, “theoretical fear” of this spirit driving him over the cliffs of reason made him curb its antics.  After all the couleur de rose portraits and lollipop miniatures made of him by pensive, poetic persons it is not possible to conceive Chopin as being irascible and almost brutal. Yet he was at times even this. “Beethoven was scarce more vehement and irritable,” writes Ehlert. And we remember the stories of friends and pupils who have seen this slender, refined Pole wrestling with his wrath as one under the obsession of a fiend. It is no desire to exaggerate this side of his nature that impels this plain writing. Chopin left compositions that bear witness to his masculine side. Diminutive in person, bad-temper became him ill; besides, his whole education and tastes were opposed to scenes of violence. So this energy, spleen and raging at fortune found escape in some of his music, became psychical in its manifestations.

But, you may say, this is feminine hysteria, the impotent cries of an unmanly, weak nature. Read the E flat minor, the C minor, the A major, the F sharp minor and the two A flat major Polonaises! Ballades, Scherzi, Studies, Preludes and the great F minor Fantaisie are purposely omitted from this awing scheme.  Chopin was weak in physique, but he had the soul of a lion.  Allied to the most exquisite poetic sensibilities—one is reminded here of Balzac’s “Ce beau genie est moins un musicien qu’une dine qui se rend sensible”—there was another nature, fiery, implacable. He loved Poland, he hated her oppressors.  There is no doubt he idealized his country and her wrongs until the theme grew out of all proportion. Politically the Poles and Celts rub shoulders. Niecks points out that if Chopin was “a flattering idealist as a national poet, as a personal poet he was an uncompromising realist.” So in the polonaises we find two distinct groups: in one the objective, martial side predominates, in the other is Chopin the moody, mournful and morose. But in all the Polish element pervades. Barring the mazurkas, these dances are the most Polish of his works. Appreciation of Chopin’s wide diversity of temperament would have sparedthe world the false, silly, distorted portraits of him. He had the warrior in him, even if his mailed fist was seldom used. There are moments when he discards gloves and soft phrases and deals blows that reverberate with formidable clangor.

By all means read Liszt’s gorgeous description of the Polonaise.  Originating during the last half of the sixteenth century, it was at first a measured procession of nobles and their womankind to the sound of music. In the court of Henry of Anjou, in 1574, after his election to the Polish throne, the Polonaise was born, and throve in the hardy, warlike atmosphere. It became a dance political, and had words set to it. Thus came the Kosciuszko, the Oginski, the Moniuszko, the Kurpinski, and a long list written by composers with names ending in “ski.” It is really a march, a processional dance, grave, moderate, flowing, and by no means stereotyped. Liszt tells of the capricious life infused into its courtly measures by the Polish aristocracy. It is at once the symbol of war and love, a vivid pageant of martial splendor, a weaving, cadenced, voluptuous dance, the pursuit of shy, coquettish woman by the fierce warrior.

The Polonaise is in three-four time, with the accent on the second beat of the bar. In simple binary form—ternary if a trio is added—this dance has feminine endings to all the principal cadences. The rhythmical cast of the bass is seldom changed.  Despite its essentially masculine mould, it is given a feminine title; formerly it was called Polonais. Liszt wrote of it:

“In this form the noblest traditional feelings of ancient Poland are represented. The Polonaise is the true and purest type of Polish national character, as in the course of centuries it was developed, partly through the political position of the kingdom toward east and west, partly through an undefinable, peculiar, inborn disposition of the entire race. In the development of the Polonaise everything co-operated which specifically distinguished the nation from others. In the Poles of departed times manly resolution was united with glowing devotion to the object of their love. Their knightly heroism was sanctioned by high-soaring dignity, and even the laws of gallantry and the national costume exerted an influence over the turns of this dance. The Polonaises are the keystone in the development of this form. They belong to the most beautiful of Chopin inspirations. With their energetic rhythm they electrify, to the point of excited demonstration, even the sleepiest indifferentism. Chopin was born too late, and left his native hearth too early, to be initiated into the original character of the Polonaise as danced through his own observation. But what others imparted to him in regard to it was supplemented by his fancy and his nationality.”

Chopin wrote fifteen Polonaises, the authenticity of one in G flat major being doubted by Niecks. This list includes the Polonaise for violoncello and piano, op. 3, and the Polonaise, op. 22, for piano and orchestra. This latter Polonaise is preceded by an andante spianato in G in six-eight time, and unaccompanied. It is a charming, liquid-toned, nocturne-like composition, Chopin in his most suave, his most placid mood: a barcarolle, scarcely a ripple of emotion, disturbs the mirrored calm of this lake. After sixteen bars of a crudely harmonized tutti comes the Polonaise in the widely remote key of E flat; it is brilliant, every note telling, the figuration rich and novel, the movement spirited and flowing. Perhaps it is too long and lacks relief. The theme on each re-entrance is varied ornamentally. The second theme, in C minor, has a Polish and poetic ring, while the coda is effective. This opus is vivacious, but not characterized by great depth. Crystalline, gracious, and refined, the piece is stamped “Paris,” the elegant Paris of 1830.

Composed in that year and published in July, 1836, it is dedicated to the Baronne D’Est. Chopin introduced it at a Conservatoire concert for the benefit of Habeneck, April 26, 1835.   This, according to Niecks, was the only time he played the Polonaise with orchestral accompaniment. It was practically a novelty to New York when Rafael Joseffy played it here, superlatively well, in 1879.

The orchestral part seems wholly superfluous, for the scoring is not particularly effective, and there is a rumor that Chopin cannot be held responsible for it. Xaver Scharwenka made a new instrumentation that is discreet and extremely well sounding.  With excellent tact he has managed the added accompaniment to the introduction, giving some thematic work of the slightest texture to the strings, and in the pretty coda to the wood-wind. A delicately managed allusion is made by the horns to the second theme of the nocturne in G. There are even five faint taps of the triangle, and the idyllic atmosphere is never disturbed.  Scharwenka first played this arrangement at a Seidl memorial concert, in Chickering Hall, New York, April, 1898. Yet I cannot truthfully say the Polonaise sounds so characteristic as when played solo.

The C sharp minor Polonaise, op. 26, has had the misfortune of being sentimentalized to death. What can be more “appassionata” than the opening with its “grand rhythmical swing”? It is usually played by timid persons in a sugar-sweet fashion, although fff stares them in the face. The first three lines are hugely heroic, but the indignation soon melts away, leaving an apathetic humor; after the theme returns and is repeated we get a genuine love motif tender enough in all faith wherewith to woo a princess. On this the Polonaise closes, an odd ending for such a fiery opening.

In no such mood does No. 2 begin. In E flat minor it is variously known as the Siberian, the Revolt Polonaise. It is a sinister page, and all the more so because of the injunction to open with pianissimo. One wishes that the shrill, high G flat had been written in full chords as the theme suffers from a want of massiveness. Then follows a subsidiary, but the principal subject returns relentlessly. The episode in B major gives pause for breathing. It has a hint of Meyerbeer. But again with smothered explosions the Polonaise proper appears, and all ends in gloom and the impotent clanking of chains. It is an awe-provoking work, this terrible Polonaise in E flat minor, op. 26; it was published July, 1836, and is dedicated to M. J. Dessauer.

Not so the celebrated A major Polonaise, op. 40, Le Militaire. To Rubinstein this seemed a picture of Poland’s greatness, as its companion in C minor is of Poland’s downfall. Although Karasowski and Kleczynski give to the A flat major Polonaise the honor of suggesting a well-known story, it is really the A major that provoked it—so the Polish portrait painter Kwiatowski informed Niecks. The story runs, that after composing it, Chopin in the dreary watches of the night was surprised—terrified is a better word—by the opening of his door and the entrance of a long train of Polish nobles and ladies, richly robed, who moved slowly by him. Troubled by the ghosts of the past he had raised, the composer, hollow eyed, fled the apartment. All this must have been at Majorca, for op. 40 was composed or finished there.  Ailing, weak and unhappy as he was, Chopin had grit enough to file and polish this brilliant and striking composition into its present shape. It is the best known and, though the most muscular of his compositions, it is the most played. It is dedicated to J.  Fontana, and was published November, 1840. This Polonaise has the festive glitter of Weber.

The C minor Polonaise of the same set is a noble, troubled composition, large in accents and deeply felt. It is indeed Poland’s downfall. The Trio in A flat, with its kaleidoscopic modulations, produces an impression of vague unrest and suppressed sorrow. There is loftiness of spirit and daring in it.

What can one say new of the tremendous F sharp minor Polonaise?  Willeby calls it noisy! And Stanislaw Przybyszewski—whom Vance Thompson christened a prestidigious noctambulist-has literally stormed over it. It is barbaric, it is perhaps pathologic, and of it Liszt has said most eloquent things. It is for him a dream poem, the “lurid hour that precedes a hurricane” with a “convulsive shudder at the close.” The opening is very impressive, the nerve-pulp being harassed by the gradually swelling prelude. There is defiant power in the first theme, and the constant reference to it betrays the composer’s exasperated mental condition. This tendency to return upon himself, a tormenting introspection, certainly signifies a grave state. But consider the musical weight of the work, the recklessly bold outpourings of a mind almost distraught! There is no greater test for the poet-pianist than the F sharp minor Polonaise. It is profoundly ironical—what else means the introduction of that lovely mazurka, “a flower between two abysses”? This strange dance is ushered in by two of the most enigmatic pages of Chopin.  The A major intermezzo, with its booming cannons and reverberating overtones, is not easily defensible on the score of form, yet it unmistakably fits in the picture. The mazurka is full of interrogation and emotional nuanciren. The return of the tempest is not long delayed. It bursts, wanes, and with the coda comes sad yearning, then the savage drama passes tremblingly into the night after fluid and wavering affirmations; a roar in F sharp and finally a silence that marks the cessation of an agitating nightmare. No “sabre dance” this, but a confession from the dark depths of a self-tortured soul. Op. 44 was published November, 1841, and is dedicated to Princesse de Beauvau. There are few editorial differences. In the eighteenth bar from the beginning, Kullak, in the second beat, fills out an octave.

The A flat Polonaise, op. 53, was published December, 1843, and is said by Karasowski to have been composed in 1840, after Chopin’s return from Majorca. It is dedicated to A. Leo. This is the one Karasowski calls the story of Chopin’s vision of the antique dead in an isolated tower of Madame Sand’s chateau at Nohant. We have seen this legend disproved by one who knows. This Polonaise is not as feverish and as exalted as the previous one.  It is, as Kleczynski writes, “the type of a war song.” Named the Heroique, one hears in it Ehlert’s “ring of damascene blade and silver spur.” There is imaginative splendor in this thrilling work, with its thunder of horses’ hoofs and fierce challengings.  What fire, what sword thrusts and smoke and clash of mortal conflict! Here is no psychical presentation, but an objective picture of battle, of concrete contours, and with a cleaving brilliancy that excites the blood to boiling pitch. That Chopin ever played it as intended is incredible; none but the heroes of the keyboard may grasp its dense chordal masses, its fiery projectiles of tone. But there is something disturbing, even ghostly, in the strange intermezzo that separates the trio from the polonaise. Both mist and starlight are in it. Yet the work is played too fast, and has been nicknamed the “Drum” Polonaise, losing in majesty and force because of the vanity of virtuosi.  The octaves in E major are spun out as if speed were the sole idea of this episode. Follow Kleczynski’s advice and do not sacrifice the Polonaise to the octaves. Karl Tausig, so Joseffy and de Lenz assert, played this Polonaise in an unapproachable manner. Powerful battle tableau as it is, it may still be presented so as not to shock one’s sense of the euphonious, of the limitations of the instrument. This work becomes vapid and unheroic when transferred to the orchestra.

The Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, op. 61, given to the world September, 1846, is dedicated to Madame A. Veyret. One of three great Polonaises, it is just beginning to be understood, having been derided as amorphous, febrile, of little musical moment, even Liszt declaring that “such pictures possess but little real value to art. ... Deplorable visions which the artist should admit with extreme circumspection within the graceful circle of his charmed realm.” This was written in the old-fashioned days, when art was aristocratic and excluded the “baser” and more painful emotions. For a generation accustomed to the realism of Richard Strauss, the Fantaisie-Polonaise seems vaporous and idealistic, withal new. It recalls one of those enchanted flasks of the magii from which on opening smoke exhales that gradually shapes itself into fantastic and fearsome figures. This Polonaise at no time exhibits the solidity of its two predecessors; its plasticity defies the imprint of the conventional Polonaise, though we ever feel its rhythms. It may be full of monologues, interspersed cadenzas, improvised preludes and short phrases, as Kullak suggests, yet there is unity in the composition, the units of structure and style. It was music of the future when Chopin composed; it is now music of the present, as much as Richard Wagner’s. But the realism is a trifle clouded. Here is the duality of Chopin the suffering man and Chopin the prophet of Poland. Undimmed is his poetic vision—Poland will be free!-- undaunted his soul, though oppressed by a suffering body. There are in the work throes of agony blended with the trumpet notes of triumph. And what puzzled our fathers—the shifting lights and shadows, the restless tonalities—are welcome, for at the beginning of this new century the chromatic is king. The ending of this Polonaise is triumphant, recalling in key and climaxing the A flat Ballade. Chopin is still the captain of his soul—and Poland will be free! Are Celt and Slav doomed to follow ever the phosphorescent lights of patriotism? Liszt acknowledges the beauty and grandeur of this last Polonaise, which unites the characteristics of superb and original manipulation of the form, the martial and the melancholic.

Opus 71, three posthumous Polonaises, given to the world by Julius Fontana, are in D minor, published in 1827, B flat major, 1828, and F minor, 1829. They are interesting to Chopinists. The influence of Weber, a past master in this form, is felt. Of the three the last in F minor is the strongest, although if Chopin’s age is taken into consideration, the first, in D minor, is a feat for a lad of eighteen. I agree with Niecks that the posthumous Polonaise, without opus number, in G sharp minor, was composed later than 1822--the date given in the Breitkopf & Hartel edition. It is an artistic conception, and in “light winged figuration” far more mature than the Chopin of op. 71. Really a graceful and effective little composition of the florid order, but like his early music without poetic depth. The Warsaw “Echo Musicale,” to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Chopin’s death, published a special number in October, 1899, with the picture of a farmer named Krysiak, born in 1810, the year after the composer. Thereat Finck remarked that it is not a case of survival of the fittest! A fac-simile reproduction of a hitherto unpublished Polonaise in A flat, written at the age of eleven, is also included in this unique number. This tiny dance shows, it is said, the “characteristic physiognomy” of the composer. In reality this polacca is thin, a tentative groping after a form that later was mastered so magnificently by the composer.

The Alla Polacca for piano and ‘cello, op. 3, was composed in 1829, while Chopin was on a visit to Prince Radziwill. It is preceded by an introduction, and is dedicated to Joseph Merk, the ‘cellist. Chopin himself pronounced it a brilliant salon piece.  It is now not even that, for it sounds antiquated and threadbare.  The passage work at times smacks of Chopin and Weber—a hint of the Mouvement Perpetuel—and the ‘cello has the better of the bargain. Evidently written for my lady’s chamber.

Two Polonaises remain. One, in B flat minor, was composed in 1826, on the occasion of the composer’s departure for Reinerz. A footnote to the edition of this rather elegiac piece tells this.  Adieu to Guillaume Kolberg, is the title, and the Trio in D flat is accredited to an air of “Gazza Ladra,” with a sentimental Au Revoir inscribed. Kleczynski has revised the Gebethner & Wolff edition. The little cadenza in chromatic double notes on the last page is of a certainty Chopin. But the Polonaise in G flat major, published by Schott, is doubtful. It has a shallow ring, a brilliant superficiality that warrants Niecks in stamping it as a possible compilation. There are traces of the master throughout, particularly in the E flat minor Trio, but there are some vile progressions and an air of vulgarity surely not Chopin’s. This dance form, since the death of the great composer, has been chiefly developed on the virtuoso side. Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, and even Bach—in his B minor suite for strings and flute--also indulged in this form. Wagner, as a student, wrote a Polonaise for four hands, in D, and in Schumann’s Papillons there is a charming specimen. Rubinstein composed a most brilliant and dramatic example in E flat in Le Bal. The Liszt Polonaises, all said and done, are the most remarkable in design and execution since Chopin. But they are more Hungarian than Polish.

 

 



 

 

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