Chopin: Mazurkas, Op. 7

performed by Idil Biret, or as below by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Hello again, and welcome back to our second installment today, continuing our discussion about Chopin’s early mazurkas. If you didn’t catch the earlier discussions of what a mazurka is, check out the articles from this morning or yesterday for more information.
In short, they’re (usually) brief Polish dance pieces in triple meter, with the accent on the second (but usually) third beat, giving them a characteristic folksy feel. These 58 published mazurkas are an important facet of Chopin’s work and career, tying him to his homeland, and are perhaps the most personal or close-to-his-heart works in his oeuvre. His op. 5 from yesterday was a rondo a la mazur, and the work from earlier today is a set of four unrelated mazurkas published together.
Today’s set was written around the same time, in 1830-32, with five pieces, numbers 5-9 of all his mazurkas when counted together (that is to say, no. 5 overall, by opus number is op. 7 no. 1, number nine is op. 7. no. 5, etc.).
The first mazurka of this set is in B-flat major and marked vivace. It is perhaps the most well-known mazurka of the set, says Wikipedia, and it is another standout, like the first work of op. 6. It is an almost circusy, fun, light piece, with a melody that’s easy to latch onto, or easily latches on to the listener.
The second mazurka is in A minor, and is the longest (at least in the recordings I’ve heard) of the set. Wikipedia says that “Despite the Vivo, ma non troppo marking, the mazurka is usually slowly performed, and the main theme is relatively mild.” If this is in fact a slower tempo, one can see how a more lively pace would make it sound less like a nocturne. It is quite mild relative to the others, without that spirited kick that is so contagious, but in a minor key, it seems almost like a funeral mazurka, if that’s ever been a thing. And remember, these aren’t movements of one work, but rather standalone pieces, so this is no slow movement of a larger piece. It is its own piece. Just remember. It is by far the most meandering of the mazurkas we’ve heard so far. Even the minor-key pieces of op. 6 (three of the four) had a lilt or mischievous dance rhythm to them, but it isn’t until later in this work that it gets livelier, and some passages in the preludes (which we have yet to address) come to mind. It is definitely melancholy and tragic.
The third mazurka is in F minor, and it sounds distant and exotic somehow after the preceding piece; our strong mazurka rhythm has returned, and while still in a minor key, it has some middle passages that sound quite bright, in contrast with the dark beginning. The opening F minor, rather elegant, theme returns to close out the work.

The fourth mazurka (number 8, if you’re keeping count) is in A-flat major. These last two mazurkas are quite short, this one just over and the next one just under a minute. They both seem quite humorous. They’re busy and jumpy, and the right-hand trills and ornamentation and antics almost kind of cover over the triple-meter rhythm that marks the mazurka. It’s just playful and light, but there’s still time in these 70 seconds for a few measures of a contrasting slow passage before a big finish.
The fifth and final mazurka of the set (number nine) is in C major. It feels a lot like the last work, and reminds me a bit of the final work of op. 6. It begins quite seriously, but jumps through hoops in the right hand to frolic around for a while, similarly bringing a smile to the face before abruptly finishing, the lack of a proper ending itself being the punchline. I can see a room full of Chopin’s listeners paying close attention, enjoying more serious works, and being delighted at the frivolity of a work like this, but suddenly being perplexed and then instantly amused as the work ends. Applause accompanied by laughter. It’s almost an encore to the set of five mazurkas, and a good, light example of simple, understandable humor.
Those are the first nine of many many Chopin mazurkas, and while they aren’t big, ‘serious’ works like his concertos or sonatas or ballades, they tell the listener a great deal about the composer, not only his heritage and love for his homeland and culture, but how he blends that, very tastefully, into virtuosic, idiomatic and very successful writing for the piano. I will admit to coming to the mazurkas very late, and after having only heard these nine, I’m interested to see how far he can take the genre, with 49 more to listen to. It’s an interesting thing to think about.
In any case, we leave the mazurkas behind for now and continue tomorrow with a much larger-scale work, one of Chopin’s rare works not for solo piano, his opus no. 8. See you then.

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