Taking a break from program versus absolute music, we will explore another major force at work in European art in the early Romantic period: Nationalism. We’ll see how Chopin perhaps unknowingly started a powerful trend in European music, and we’ll enjoy his gorgeous and unique works for solo piano.
The European industrial revolution created wealth, prosperity and massive urbanization in the early 19th century. An increasingly varied class system evolved in which more people had more means, and wealth spread across the continent. More countries had more to be proud of, and many countries rallied for independence, liberalization over old monarchial systems, or social change. Colonialism was also in full swing; powerful European nations were proud of their way of life and excited to share it, wealthy enough to pay for the logistics, and buying into the competition of who could annex more offshore territories both for economic gain and sheer pride.
We are still only talking about the early 19th century, 1800-1850, and many major 19th-century conflicts, such as the Revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War which led to the disillusion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which took up nearly half of Europe, took place after that. All the buildup to these conflicts, though, took place in in the years before.
Nationalism, a love for one’s own culture, country and way of life, was a hugely influential force in music during this time. Whether that meant choosing a vernacular language instead of Latin when composing liturgical music, writing in dance formats particular to one’s culture, such as a Polish polka or an Italian tarantella, or reflecting happenings of the surrounding political climate in one’s work by telling a literal story with music, composers were finding creative ways to express their own personal views of the world around them, which were of course biased by where they lived, what language they spoke and how they were taught.
We should be very thankful for this now because the sheer variety in output from composers around Europe, and even elsewhere in the world, still fills programs and concert halls today. Differences between music written in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, and other major contributors to European music will be easier to hear from this point onward. Some music was associated so strongly with the culture from whence the composer came that later in history it would be used as a political tool. During the height of Russia/Poland conflict, after Chopin’s death, Russian soldiers destroyed Chopin’s childhood piano by throwing it out a second-story window. During the Nazi occupation of Poland a hundred years later, Chopin’s music was banned because of the national pride that it carried.
Frederic Chopin’s Unique Voice
During Frederic Chopin’s short lifetime, Poland had spent years as Russian territory. The political climate was beginning to intensify and calls for pride in being Polish, even independence from Poland’s powerful controller, were gaining momentum.
Frederic Chopin was born in Warsaw, but his musical talent prompted a move to Paris after he completed his education. Less than a month after the 20-year old Chopin left Poland, the 1830 Uprising in Warsaw began armed conflict between Poland and Russia. Chopin spent the remainder of his life largely away from Poland – it was, after all, a war zone – but he took his heritage with him, and living in another place gave him the freedom to write as he wished. This helped Chopin to start the trend of nationalism in music. Whether he deliberately placed Polish themes into his music to make a point, or it was simply the music he knew best, we aren’t sure. In addition to the more pan-cultural formats like concerti, ballades and nocturnes, Chopin wrote several mazurkas and polonaises, both Polish dance forms. Today we’ll look at one example of each.
Polonaise in A Flat Major, op. 53
Dignified, stately and proud, the polonaise is a dance similar to a peacock showing off his finest feathers. Polonaises are characterized by a slow, deliberate triple meter (in 3, like a waltz), lots of pomp and resonance from pedal use, block chords (meaning all the notes of a chord played simultaneously), and lots of parallel octaves to fill out sound.
There is also a particular rhythmic motif that brings out the pompous character and, while difficult to write in words, it is important, so I will try to describe it. Think about pronouncing the word Amsterdam. There is strong emphasis on AM, a very quick ster and a slightly longer, unaccentuated dam. A slight variation of this would be saying po-lo-naise, with po and lo very quick and naise longer and with emphasis. If you hear rhythms that resemble this word, chances are good that you’re listening to a polonaise. Listen to this particular Polonaise in A Flat and see if you can identify these rhythms.
This particular polonaise begins with an almost purely chromatic passage, making us wonder what we’re about to hear. It isn’t yet clear if it’s a polonaise, or even a dance at all. Even the key isn’t immediately clear. In the early 19th century this opening must have been a shock for listeners. Perhaps Chopin’s love for playing in small salons and dislike of playing in large concert halls encouraged him to write more idiosyncratically, without worrying about whether he could sell out a hall with his style.
Pitches are repeated for emphasis and to build excitement, and eventually the chromaticism gives way to the polonaise’s main melody. Enjoy the pompous rhythms, exciting dynamics and the compulsion to get up and dance along!
Mazurka in a minor, op 17 no. 4
On the other side of the spectrum of Polish dances, the mazurka is for later in the evening, slow and melancholic. Gone are the enormous chords and angular rhythms; instead we have another classically Chopin sound characterized by rubato and expressive ornaments. Rubato implies slight slowing down, and speeding back up, for expressive emphasis. Although it was already a widely used tool before Chopin, nobody had such a strong logistical reason to use it before him. Chopin’s idiosyncratic ornamentation made melodies take so long at certain times that without rubato, the accompaniment would end up several paces ahead!
This leads us to ornamentation. This practice was also old news by Chopin’s time; as long as music had existed in Europe, people had also added their own personal touches to the basic melody lines to make them more interesting. We discussed ornamentation already in the Baroque opera entry and saw that already by that time, there were many ways to inflect and emphasize aspects of a melody. Since the Baroque period, the most popular ornaments were trills (flipping between two neighboring pitches), and mordants (A slightly more complicated trill with more notes), but neither of these had an effect on the overall pace of the music.
These weren’t enough options for Chopin, so he chose to insert more creative ornaments to inflect the AB format of his dances. Back to the Baroque period once again, AB(A) format is still king for dances, so all of Chopin’s Mazurkas (and polonaises) will follow ABA. When the material repeats, ornaments are extended to give contrast and to show rhetoric and emotional emphasis. In the repeat of the A melody of this mazurka, you’ll hear an entire collection of upward and downward scales, arpeggios and other flourishes of emotion that stop the pulse of the dance completely. Only when the ornament is finished can the dance can go on. The accompaniment is completely at the will of the melody in Chopin’s slower, meditative music, and although it’s a dance, it isn’t predictable enough to dance to without paying it due respect and attention!
I’m most interested in the similarities between the early Baroque opera singing and these ornaments. The repeated pitches are especially unique to Chopin’s voice, and Monteverdi’s writing from 200 years before called for similar interpretation. Truly music does move in a pendulum across eras and although this entry is mostly about nationalism in music, even bring from different cultural backgrounds doesn’t stop the two genres from sounding eerily similar.
Chopin is a widely loved name in Western music and his compositional output is vast. Every piece he wrote involves the piano, and most of them are for piano alone. There are entire collections of polonaises, mazurkas, ballades and nocturnes to explore. Here are some more favorites if you’d like to keep listening.