Ballade No. 1
If waltzes were Chopin’s only contribution to the piano literature, the composer would hardly be as endeared as he is on the basis of his entire life’s work. But still, we’d miss the waltzes if we were deprived of them.
The Op. 70, No. 2 Waltz in F minor is intimate, lyrical and not particularly memorable, whereas Op. 70, No. 1 is all sprightly, effervescent courtly danciness. No. 3 of Op. 70 has an easy appeal but is not nearly so rhythmically or brilliantly clever as Op. 42 in A-flat.
The Third Ballade (there are four) was once known as Undine, after a poem by the Polish patriot Adam Mickiewicz. The Ballade basks in some of the most open-faced, exuberant music Chopin ever wrote. An eight-measure introduction is this piece’s ingenuously smiling entrance, leading to a main theme that is no less benign but that hints at some seriousness. The latter spirit does indeed evolve in a minor mode section, but this Ballade’s tenor is chiefly piquant and buoyantly aristocratic, and that certainly includes the charming second theme heralded by rocking octaves. The piece ends, not violently as in the manner of the codas of the other Ballades, but gracefully, maintaining the dual air of simplicity and elegance that has pervaded most of its pages.
The Nocturnes, 19 in all, are a special species in the Chopin canon, for in sighing soulfulness and ephemeral expressiveness most of them represent the composer at his most intimate. His piano style fully exploited the singing quality of the instrument and embodied a whole world of sonorities resulting essentially from unique widespread figures that accompanied long-breathed melodies and the fanciful, exquisite filigree that ornamented them. Also, his use of the sustaining pedal greatly amplified the distinctive sonority he sought, just as the alternate slowing down and acceleration of tempo (rubato) he employed contributed enormously to a poetic ambiance. On the level of sheer music apart from pianistics, Chopin introduced into his harmonic structure the element of chromaticism that guided virtually all composers who came after him.
Just two chords, the first seemingly unrelated to B major, serve to introduce the melting main theme of the Nocturne in B major, which, in its final appearance after many departures, is treated to chains of difficult-to-negotiate trills, the ultimate Chopin ornamentation in a very dense and showy piece.
Chopin visited Robert Schumann in Leipzig in 1836, and of that meeting Schumann wrote to a friend, “I have Chopin’s new Ballade [the G-minor]. It seems to me to be the piece that shows most genius, and I told him that I liked it most of all his works. After thinking a long time he said with great feeling, ‘I’m glad of that because it’s the one I prefer too’.” Their joint choice of a favored Chopin piece was not a difficult selection if they were taking into account only the large-scale works, for, other than the piano-orchestral compositions, most of those were yet to come.
At any rate, the Ballade in G minor represents the Pole at the peak of youthful impetuosity, striking the kind of poetic fire that would certainly have excited the similarly youthful, temperamental, tragically unbalanced Schumann. [The two were at the time 25, Chopin being the elder only by some three months.] The piece begins with one of the most compelling introductions possible: the hands in single notes an octave apart stride urgently from low bass to high treble for three measures, whisper provocatively for two bars, then, finally in chords, evoke the ultimate anticipation with a superbly placed dissonance that melts into the austerely lyric main theme. In contrast to this rather steely-eyed melody, the second theme, in major, is all nocturnal sweetness, although it eventually attains surprising muscularity and thrust. Entwined with the lyricism, glittering passagework and technical gnarls abound, climaxing in a presto con fuoco coda of demonic difficulty. The no-technical-holds-barred coda was to become the signature