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Chopin’s two sets of Etudes, Op. 10 of 1831 and Op. 25 of 1836, are the work of a young virtuoso not yet out of his mid-20s. No one before had taken what was thought of as a simple teaching tool designed to overcome a technical difficulty and elevated it to a piece of artistic and emotional expression suitable for public performance. After Chopin the etude was not just a duration of scales and fingerings, it was a recognized form of musical poetry.
The instantly recognized Etude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, focuses on the floating of a melodic line above a fluttering cushion of arpeggios. Schumann, it is said, gave it its nickname, “Aeolian Harp.” If you’ve heard an Aeolian harp, you will agree that its airy monotony offers no competition to Chopin’s weightless magic.
The mazurka, a lively folk dance in triple time, originated in the Mazovia province of northern Poland. Of the dance forms Chopin employed (the waltz and polonaise among them), the mazurka was most often used. He wrote at least 50 of them across the entire duration of his career and his progress as a musician can be heard in their variety.
By the time of the mazurkas of Op. 59, Chopin, 36 years old with just three years to live, had been in the habit of publishing his mazurkas in sets of three or four — sympathetic musical partners, often concluding with an ostentatious mazurka and with a central mazurka of a more retiring and lyrical nature. His lifelong study of Bach, which included daily acquaintance with the preludes and fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier, resulted in the complex and highly chromatic counterpoint heard in all three mazurkas of Op. 59. They never betray their humble dance origins, however; melodies do not scamper up and down the keyboard but tend to remain resolutely in a narrow range of notes, and the rhythmic lilt is never lost to the ear. But the infinite gradations of longing and tenderness in this music remind us that dance is a stylized enactment of emotional relationships and the drama of human interaction. We hear two from this set and the first, No. 2 in A-flat major, has often been thought of as the definitive mazurka, as it dips in and out of melancholy — No. 3 in F-sharp minor stomps out its folk origins. The mazurkas of Op. 50 were published in 1841, some five years earlier. We hear the third from this set, a favorite for its minor-key sorrow and exuberant central dance.
In Italian, a scherzo is a jest or a joke. In musical parlance, a scherzo referred to pieces or movements of a lighter, somewhat humorous nature, both in terms of mood and articulation. This was the scherzo as developed by the likes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn — usually quick outer sections with a slower central trio section.
For the most part, Chopin’s first three scherzos were anything but joking. Unlike its three minor-key partners, however, the Scherzo No. 4, Op. 54, adopts the sunny key of E major. But this isn’t an uninterrupted happiness. A reflective central interlude eventually gives way to the return of shining good spirits.
Grant Hiroshima is the Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.