I had a teacher once describe the Mazuraks as “distilled Chopin”. I can’t think of a better term to describe these. To get to know the Mazurkas is to get to know the very core of Chopin the composer, on an extremely personal level.
I don’t know who this person is or who their teacher is or anything, but this statement struck me, especially after watching that biography of Chopin conducted/presented by Schiff. He stated that the Mazurka is a red cord running through Chopin’s entire career, one of the few forms he wrote throughout his career, as a connection to his motherland. This is perhaps the form closest to the composer’s heart, one that is not absolute music. The rondos, previously discussed, were small, fun-ish parlor pieces that showed of Chopin’s virtuosity and style of both performance and composition. They weren’t serious works, like his first sonata, but they certainly weren’t dismissable throwaways, either.
The mazurka, however, was close to the composer’s heart, as it represented home, his family, heritage, all of that. There’s no country whose national anthem is the étude, no place or people who stand represented by the nocturne (and if there were, it would arguably be the Irish…), or find patriotism and pride in the rondo. It seems appropriate, then, that Chopin memorialized his carefree time in the countryside with a polonaise, another form also associated with his home country.
So then, if we are to get to know the composer, would it not be very appropriate to get to know his passion, come to understand the music he himself was most moved by? Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s the mazurka. I’m grabbing the entire first chunk of this article about the Chopin mazurkas collectively to quote below:
Over the years 1825–1849, Frédéric Chopin wrote at least 69 mazurkas for piano, based on the traditional Polish dance:
58 have been published
45 during Chopin’s lifetime, of which 41 have opus numbers13 posthumously, of which
8 have posthumous opus numbers
11 further mazurkas are known whose manuscripts are either in private hands (2) or untraced (at least 9).
The serial numbering of the 58 published mazurkas normally goes only up to 51. The remaining 7 are referred to by their key or catalogue number.
His composition of these mazurkas signaled new ideas of nationalism, and influenced and inspired other composers—mostly Europeans[who?] —to support their national music.
This, to an Austrian or German traditionalist, may sound odd. Are the serious forms of classical music not the sonata? the concerto? even theme-and-variations? These are the forms and structures in which the great piano works of the past were cast. But no, Chopin uses a small, dainty, folk rhythm and puts his stamp on it. Interestingly, the above Wikipedia article also states that “Chopin used more classical techniques in his mazurkas than in any of his other genres. One of these techniques is four part harmony in the manner of a chorale.” They had their own classical elements, greater chromaticism and depth, but maintained some of the standard characteristics that make a mazurka what it is (the rhythm, repetition, etc.).
We will be addressing nine of these works today, in two separate articles. Nine works sounds like a boatload of music, but these nine mazurkas make up only about twenty minutes of playing time, so it isn’t a ton. Today is the opus six mazurkas, numbers one through four.
The first is the longest in this set, and is in F# minor. I really love this one; it’s quite chromatic in places, and is almost more nocturne-y than some of his nocturnes, but with that unmistakable and somehow so magical rhythm. It’s a quieter melody, in contrast with a thundering but very brief passage that breaks up this magical, almost hypnotizing rhythm in the first subject, apparently somewhat slow for a Chopin mazurka. These two are repeated and that’s pretty much it. It is very likely because this is the first real mazurka I heard of Chopin’s (almost 100% why), but this one might be my favorite of this whole set of nine mazurkas in these two opus numbers. It’s a very very good first impression.
The pieces get progressively shorter, and the second is in C# minor. It begins… almost like a choral or something we’d hear from a string quartet, definitely in a minor, but the mazurka rhythm emerges out of the brief introduction, and is bolder than the first. For some reason, this one feels more ‘minor key’ than number one did. There isn’t a contrasting idea until after the middle of this piece, and it sounds like a lighter version of the introduction, which it in fact leads into before the repeat of the mazurka theme and the end of the piece. These two pieces are somehow so captivating, expressive but yet so compact at the same time.
The third is just over two minutes long, in E major, the only major-key work of the opus six mazurkas. It is indeed bright, and celebratory, with a wonderful subtle little bass line that works downward toward the end of the main theme, almost kind of counterpoint-y. There’s a contrasting section, either in a minor key or with lots of minor chords. You do hear the prevalence of the trills and ornamentation used in these works, which give this work a light feeling, the most dance-able so far, but it also feels ‘rich’ in the piano, with crunchy, nice chords.
The fourth and final of the set is under a minute long and is in Eb minor. It feels the busiest. It doesn’t settle into anything remotely danceable or even hummable. It’s like a mazurka and an étude had a child out of wedlock, and just as you start to realize that, it’s over. It feels the most parlor-y, perhaps humorous, in a dark way, light and almost sarcastic, but just as you start to kind of warm up to it and get what it’s about, it flutters away.
And those are our four mazurkas in the opus six. I’ll actually be posting the opus seven mazurkas later today as well, two collections of works in one day, but let me explain. It is not to say that these works are at all slight or to be brushed over. Hardly. I feel like, of all the works we’ve talked about since Mozart’s first piano concerto at the beginning of the month, these are the most instantly captivating. They’re simple and succinct, and if you don’t pay attention they’ll slip right by and be finished but there’s some kind of magic in them that fascinates and endears. How did I not come to listen to these until now? This is a wonderful revelation. As stated above, we have now discussed only four of 58 published mazurkas by Chopin, not to mention those by Scriabin and other composers. I am looking forward to a long and fulfilling relationship with the classical mazurka. More of these to come (five to be exact) in about twelve hours. See you then.