Post #50: Chopin: Ballade no. 1 in Gm, op. 23

there are also these, more for comparison than anything else:
This performance by Krystian Zimerman that may genuinely be the best ever
-And since she’s been here before, a performance by Martha Argerich
Post number 50! Well, musical review number 50. There have been some other housekeeping type posts and other features like the “on this day” column, but this is the fiftieth piece of music I have listened to and written something about. I was a bit apprehensive at first to count all fifty of these as legitimate posts upon looking back at them. The first few were relatively poor endeavors, but were in keeping with the general idea  that I had at the beginning of this simply being a place online for me to keep my notes about what I listen to, so I could jog my memory about some piece I’ve listened to if ever I need to have something to say about it. The whole point and purpose has changed, really, as has my method. In the very first few posts, I listened to a piece (at best in passing) a few times the same day, and wrote some very measly few paragraphs stating something like “it’s pretty” or “I don’t get it” or “I heard (probably only some of) the things Wikipedia mentioned in their entry on this piece.” A piece was chosen at random, and very little research or thought was put into it.
In the past few weeks, since the move to this domain, I’ve been doing some housecleaning, with tags and ordering of some posts (a few that didn’t make the move that I had to backfill), and realized I really done like those earliest of posts, so I thought I’d clean them out. But I thought again, and figured they’re kind of nice to look back on and see (hopefully) how my ear has become more trained and possibly tastes even refined. The better thing, I decided, was to keep them as they are, but eventually get around to doing revisits. I’ll listen to them again like I do now with the other pieces: pick one when it feels right, keep them in the listening rotation for a few weeks (maybe longer) until I’m ready to say something constructive about it. Context is important.
That being said, we are at post number fifty, and I feel I can say lots about this piece

from the standpoint of actually having played a bit of it, but more so from having listened to it almost 200 times (says my iTunes).

It’s a bit intimidating to write about a piece as well known as this, for fear of making wrong statements about it, but then again, my purpose here is less to discuss the music theory (the science) of the piece and more to discuss what it is I love about it and what I understand about the piece, and learn a thing or two about it along the way.
I’d decided this would be a good monumental 50th post, even before I realized that Chopin turned 204 this past Saturday. First the facts:
Chopin wrote this piece in Vienna in 1831, but didn’t publish it until his return to Paris. He dedicated it to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France. Who knows why? Robert Schumann, who would sometime after the writing of this piece no longer care for Chopin (and Chopin did not care for Schumann; they were also born the same year), had this to say about the work:

“I received a new Ballade from Chopin. It seems to be a work closest to his genius (although not the most ingenious) and I told him that I like it best of all his compositions. After quite a lengthy silence he replied with emphasis, ‘I am happy to hear this since I too like it most and hold it dearest.'”

I’d heard this piece for the first time (that I recall) at a friend’s house. She is a music major and played it in university. I snapped some video of it, and enjoyed it quite a bit, but didn’t even remember the name of the piece the first few times. It was one of the defining moments in my decision to begin taking piano lessons, even though it was around two years later that I finally did.
I asked my piano teacher what piece that was and she obviously recognized it immediately.
Also, Chopin was one of the first stops on my “learn about the classical repertoire” mission. That and Beethoven. As it turns out, Chopin’s four ballades are the first four tracks on the first disc of Idil Biret’s box set of the entire works of Chopin. For months on end, that was what I listened to, along with Chopin’s second and third sonatas, so I got very familiar with those. I didn’t understand the idea of what exactly a ballade was supposed to be, but they’re basically musical stories, in other words, narratives or literature set to music. Chopin’s work here was the first of its kind, and he wrote three more.
I may enjoy this single-movement format because it is much easier to follow the linear structure of a storyline rather than the complicated sonic layout of a sonata, with its changes in key and treatment of themes. This piece certainly still has themes that transform and develop, but not with that exact sonata structure.
This was also one of the first pieces I ever listened to and tried to make sense of. I recognized the main themes and tried to identify them throughout the piece, what was different each time it showed up, and how it fit into the larger picture of the piece. It seems easier (for likely obvious reasons) to identify themes and ideas in a solo piece, but even this can be challenging. I found it thoroughly pleasing and easy, however, to identify the themes in this piece.
The introduction is slow and regal, both strong and delicate, only a few short measures long, and finishes with a dissonant musical version of a raised eyebrow before leading into the first major theme.
This theme is more delicate than the opening, but still regal. It’s almost new and wondering, young an almost naive, perhaps expressing a longing, but not a romantic one. After the first expression of this theme, it starts back where it began, with a few minor changes, and leads into an ornamentation of twenty something notes that stirs things up quite a bit. There is an ‘agitato’ marking, and it sounds such, comprising one of the more demandingly technical passages in the piece, finishing with a thunderingly powerful bass over arpeggios (I think?) spanning three or four octaves before, almost in a sigh of relief, the second theme enters. It would sound stunningly beautiful on its own, but is even more peaceful after the fiery passage that precedes it.
A rallentando gets us back to ‘a tempo’ and the first theme, but in a different key, and it sounds less innocent here. We were, as the title of the piece suggests, in Gm, but are now in … something else. I don’t know. It looks like a different key in the score, just not sure which. Maybe a mode?
Anyway, this brings a little bit of doubt and tension with it, but it climaxes in one of my favorite parts of the piece, a glorious return of the second theme, with much more elaborate expression, and richer chords and bigger sound, and in a higher register, I think. It’s just wonderfully magnificent, free and celebratory. It has to be the happiest moment in the piece. There’s a bit of chatty scaly arpeggio bits that are fun and kind of scherzo-ish, but the bass grows more and more until the treble runs up and down a few octaves and the second theme repeats, but this time much cleaner and more pure, dancing over a very busy left hand. This whole thing is just breathtaking. It dies down a bit more and there is more tension when the A theme returns. You can even feel that this must be close to the end now.
There’s a lot of super demanding technical stuff here to get through, but it all makes for a very exciting rush toward the finish. Lots of chromatic runs in octaves up and down, big chords, use of the whole keyboard, intense pauses, and finally the last chord, where everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It ends in the same regal fashion, I feel, in which it began, just not as delicately, as if throughout everything we’ve experienced over the past ten minutes had made us grow.
A few things about this piece:
1. It’s the shortest I believe we have ever had here so far. It’s a single movement work, and a short-ish one at that.
2. It’s about the only one so far that I can play any passage of (of any respectable length).
3. It’s also likely one of the pieces I have listened to most (if not the most) of all the music I have. I get attached.
I also feel this piece has a few nice examples of difficulty of interpretation that are probably even apparent to people who cannot play any music. The opening eight bars, which I have probably played five hundred times, are not technically difficult, at least not in the way Chopin’s chromatic runs and lots of other incredibly difficult stuff to master in this piece are. The difficulty, as with so many of Chopin’s works, lies in interpretation of that passage. It’s slow and heavy at first, and there isn’t really a lot going on there. Some of my favorite interpretations of this piece (notably Biret and Krystian Zimerman above) have just the perfect weight, speed, pausing, and motion to this opening (and the whole piece). So much of that isn’t really written in the score (this isn’t Mahler), but if you can make a logical, convincing, informed expression out of it, with a purpose, it will likely be moving. The opposite is true for a lackluster, by-the-book, uninspired playing of those notes. It will be unconvincing and lifeless. Let it be known that if it is something I can play on the piano, it can’t be anything with any degree of technical difficulty. The challenge here is in expression, which requires not just technique, but a deep understanding of the storyline of the piece and how you want that story to be told.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the links for the different interpretations above. I am already hopelessly attached to Idil Biret’s performance (of most of Chopin’s pieces, in fact, with the exception of some of the etudes, at least). It’s the one I became most familiar with before I could even consider or compare different interpretations of the same piece, so for me, at the time, Biret was it. As mentioned in previous posts, Horowitz is just not my favorite. Would I love to be able to play like him? Absolutely. If I had his technique, would I interpret things differently? Also yes. Just a matter of style, but I will say that his performance above has some brilliantly delicate and technical areas that I heard in an entirely different way. I did enjoy some of those bits. An amazing touch. (I also like how his face remains almost entirely expressionless throughout the entire performance. No weird faces or acting here; just an oldish very talented man who looks almost bored playing beautiful music on the piano).
Zimerman’s performance may even be more intensely perfect than Biret’s (either that or I just like their style), so it was easier for me to warm up to quickly. He has an amazing pensive, respectful, artistic approach to the piece, and it is as if every single thing is perfectly in place. Argerich’s performance here, however, (while apparently when she was much younger), I find to be plain. From her expression in this performance, I may or may not even have been able to guess it was her if asked.
I believe it was Alan Gilbert (music director with the New York Philharmonic) in an interview about Mahler where he said one of the greatest challenges in Mahler is keeping that vision for the orchestra and not letting the piece reach a climax prematurely, because then everything that comes after it is… Somewhat lost, pale in comparison and it affects the entire rest of the piece, which, in Mahler, could be another hour. Everything must be in its place.
I feel strongly that this piece is about storytelling. The regal, dramatic narrative needs to have that kind of expression, and it demands a logical, knowledgeable approach. What story? I don’t know. The two themes intertwine nicely and it could be about Chopin missing his homeland during political troubles, and longing to be with his nation, or a person. But there’s a common answer to that question, too.
One cannot discuss this piece without at least giving mention to the Adam Mickiewicz poem Konrad Wallenrod that many argue this piece was based on. I wanted to read the poem before getting into this writing, but I at least read the summary from the Wikipedia article about it. I don’t know enough about the political and literary history of these two men or their relationships to say one way or another if one inspired the other, but I can certainly see how one could make an argument for it, and even how the emotions in the story (political and dramatic and romantic) would fit the narrative of the piece. It would certainly have given me an entirely different set of emotions about this ballade had I possibly been convinced of this influence earlier. It was at least a nice little bit of knowledge that may provide some deeper insight to the piece, if nothing else.
Whether or not this is based on a narrative poem, or Chopin’s own feelings or thoughts about something else is, in the big scheme of things, irrelevant. This is not 100% a happy, cheerful piece, although it has its moments of pure bliss.

 

It’s regarded as one of the most challenging pieces in the standard repertoire (as can be said for the other three ballades too) and with good reason. It obviously requires extremely refined technique, but a poetic touch and artistic expression. All that aside, with just a few listens, I feel this piece can have the impact on a listener to tell a story and show them what classical music is all about. It is certainly one of my favorites, and one I intend to continue listening to (and learning) for quite some time to come.
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