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If Beethoven was the man who freed music (the title of a biography by Robert Haven Schauffler), Chopin was the man who freed the piano, enabling it to assume the role of an expressive, poetic solo instrument complete in itself. Whatever the scope of a Chopin piece, it is invariably and incomparably pianistic, being made of such stuff as exquisite lyricism; glowing sonorities activated by the total resources of the piano, including the pedal; ingenious harmonic coloration; poetic expressiveness, often cultivated on a chromatic basis that greatly influenced the remainder of the 19th century; and expansive, enlightened virtuosity of a kind that became a model for all who followed.
In the creation of the piano miniature, Chopin had no peers. Indeed, individually and collectively, his Preludes, Etudes, and many of the Mazurkas stand as the ultimate “little bits” (Chopin’s own description of the Preludes) of keyboard poetry. Of the larger works, none were closer to the composer’s Polish heart than the Polonaises, those stately dances of his homeland having a courtly and ceremonial origin, in contrast to the folk-like nature of the mazurka. In fact, Chopin’s very first pieces, written with a child’s hand, were polonaises, and the dance continued to occupy him throughout his career.
The Polonaise-Fantaisie justifies its double title even though it is not as heroic as some of his other polonaises, nor as urgently dramatic in its free form as the Fantaisie in F-minor, Chopin's only piece with that single name. Notwithstanding the bravura incarnations of the lyric main theme in the course of the piece, this is a polonaise that is only reluctantly martial or regal. It is instead largely inward, a quality that is revealed in the rather lengthy introduction that opens with a series of ominous chords, several of which are succeeded by recitative-like patterns that ascend the keyboard wistfully. The introduction hints broadly at the main theme which, when ready to make its appearance, is heralded by the characteristic polonaise rhythm: in rapid succession — long-short-short-long-long-long-long. The main theme, a gracious and engaging melody, is oft repeated, embellished with chains of trills and dotted notes, broadened, and given a martial identity with blazing octave triplets in the accompaniment. Other themes enter and are prominent, but allow pride of place to the main melody. A brief allusion to the introductory material makes a strong dramatic point, just as a gradual dying away at the end is capped by a loud and jolting final chord.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.