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The dance movements that flesh out Bach’s French Suite and his B-flat Partita (in fact all of his suites) are sit-down-and-listen music, stylized dances not really meant to engage people in physical activity. The mazurka, a Polish folk dance that became popular as a drawing room dance in Western Europe in the mid-19th century, found its stylization as art music at the hand of one of the country-of-origin’s favorite sons, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849).
Chopin’s love for his native Poland seems to have stayed with him throughout his life even 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 Parisian, Chopin didn’t place his nationalism under wraps; he kept the flame of Poland alive in himself by writing music that was part of the country’s basic identity, namely dance forms – the mazurka and the polonaise. The great Polish pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), who also held the post of prime minister, wrote this in his autobiography about the meaning Chopin gave to the people during the time of Russian domination: “All was forbidden us,” Paderewski said, “the language and the faith of our fathers, our national dress, our songs, our poets. Chopin alone was not forbidden. In him we could still find the living breath of all that was prohibited….He gave all back to us…” What a heroic figure he was and is still to his people.
Chopin clearly found solace in the character and rhythms of the dance music of Poland. In the country’s mazurka Chopin appropriated 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 many moods between those extremes. Yet a Chopin mazurka is not only a vehicle for emotional expressiveness but also for musical ingenuity, including chromaticism, daring modulations and striking harmonic coloration. In the all-important matter of rhythm, the authentic folk heritage of the three-quarter time dances are conveyed by the strong accents that appear most frequently on the third beats of measures, sometimes on the second. And modal inflections, with their Slavic nature, add distinct color to these remarkably varied pieces.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic program book.