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Chopin’s love for his native Poland stayed with him throughout his life, though he never returned to his country after leaving in 1830 at age 20. When he left, his teacher, Joseph Elsner, gave him an urn filled with Polish soil; he never parted with the urn, and it was buried with him when he died.
As a transplanted Pole in Paris, Chopin didn’t keep his nationalism under wraps; he kept the flame of Poland alive in himself by writing music that was an intrinsic part of his national identity. He clearly found solace in the character and rhythms of the mazurka, a dance form that he could manipulate with utmost sensitivity, subtlety, and myriad shades of expressiveness. Indeed, the temperamental range to be found in the more than 50 mazurkas he wrote throughout his life is astonishing, from deep melancholy to abandoned gaiety, with the many moods between those extremes. Yet a Chopin mazurka is not only a vehicle for emotional expressiveness but also for musical ingenuity, including daring modulations and striking harmonic coloration. Specifically in the matter of rhythm do the three-quarter-time mazurkas reflect their folk heritage, with strong accents appearing most frequently on the third beats of measures, sometimes on the second.
Op. 41, No. 1 in C-sharp minor: In 1839 Chopin wrote to a friend “I have four new mazurkas…they seem good to me, as younger children do to parents growing old.” (The composer was all of 29 years old at the time and had already written 25 pieces in the Polish dance form.) They rightly seemed good to daddy, but one wonders if the first one, in C-sharp minor, seemed the best. This is one of the most extended of the mazurkas. It begins simply enough, its rather plaintive main theme presented in single notes. After repetitions and departures from it, this theme is given a grandiose treatment in octave chords, beginning a coda that ends very quietly on a version of a rhythmic pattern heard earlier. A small tone poem in dance form.
Op. 24, No. 2 in C major: The four mazurkas of Opus 24 were composed in 1835, just a few years after Chopin made Paris his home. With folk-like Poland very much in mind, he opens the mazurka with a simple four-measure introduction containing tonic-dominant, classically forbidden consecutive fifths in the bass. (The fifths later act as a 12-measure dying away coda.) The mazurka proper is pure charm, with drone basses, à la folk music, and a little modal twist (Lydian) by way of a wrong sounding B-natural when in the key of F. In style and spirit, this is a very distant cousin from the C-minor mazurka of Op. 56.
Op. 56, No. 3 in C minor: In 1843 Chopin apparently was ready for a dramatic departure, for he invested this dance with über chromaticism – enough to make Wagner blush – and unusual length for a mazurka – five pages. The changes of key and atmosphere are wonderfully wrought, yet the essential impression of the whole is that the heart is not quite as involved as the sheer sense of musical adventure.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.