performed by Krystian Zimerman
(the above video is an excellent performance, but from at least a few decades ago, as the pianist’s coiffure will attest, but the specific performance by Zimerman is from the Chopin Complete Edition, where it is taken at a slightly broader pace. Regardless, his Chopin is always impeccable!)
It’s been a long time since we did Chopin’s first ballade in Gm, in fact just over two years ago at this point, 25 months. It was music post no. 50, at a time when I wrote about whatever I listened to, and when many of the preceding articles were of very little informative value (not that much of that has changed…). Just over a month ago, we passed our 200th post (this is no. 228, depending on how you could some of the opus numbers with multiple works in them… it could be at least a couple dozen higher, mostly because of the recent Haydn quartets…) and it’s just now we’re getting around to the second ballade.
In contrast to the first (and the fourth, which we shall obviously get to eventually), the second and third ballades are smaller and seem to be given somewhat less attention. If the four ballades were to be recategorized, I would consider 1 and 4 to be more like epics and 2 and 3 more like… fairytales, or nursery rhymes, even though that sounds a bit derogatory. For one, they’re shorter, each about half the length of the first and last ballades. Secondly (or related to the length) is the amount of content or ground the cover; they don’t feel as expansive, as emotionally encompassing. That’s not to say they aren’t emotional, but that they’re of smaller stature is not to say they are less beautiful (even if I do prefer 1 and 4). Let’s get to it.
The second ballade was composed in Nohant, France and on Majorca. The story is that Robert Schumann (rightly) loved the first ballade, and dedicated (in an unrelated gesture?) his Kreisleriana, considered one of his greatest works, to Chopin. Chopin’s response was apparently cold. In return, however, Chopin dedicated his second ballade to Schumann. The German’s response, if not cold in return, at least expressed that the work was not of the genius caliber of the first (few works are, when you think about it), and at least to my impression, their relationship was at best only cordial ever since.
But Schumann’s sentiment is shared by others, as Wikipedia points out:
The piece has been criticized by prominent pianists and musicologists, including its dedicatee Schumann, as a less ingenious work than the first.
So about that fairytale/nursery rhyme bit… the beginning opens placidly with repeated Cs, almost churchy, hymn-like, in octaves, and smoothly blossoms into the main theme of the first part of the work, a gentle, rocking (as of a cradle, not a ship) melody in 6/8 time. To end this first section is another set of repeated notes, but this time it’s A, not C, and erupts rather progresses into a jarring, completely unrelated furious passage in the distant key of A minor, neither the parallel nor relative minor of F major. In any case, this section is marked “Presto con fuoco – literally “very fast with fire””, and is decidedly un-nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s quite turbulent, driving, and there’s a terribly satisfying strong undercurrent in the left hand that persists after the treble cools down, leading us back to the original, more peaceful melody that opened the piece, and developing it more fully, reaching an understated yet glorious climax. The fiery theme returns in kind, also developed, before ending with the opening calm theme, but this time in A minor.
There’s almost a kind of sonata-ish development going on here… maybe there’s an actual word for this layout, but it’s not sonata-rondo. It’s kind of an ABA’B’A” layout, which, while simple enough, serves to provide enough tension and contrast, not only thematically but also harmonically, ending in the minor key, giving the piece an unresolved finish.
Ultimately, the piece is quite enjoyable, I find. Instead of the more expansive, longer-form of the first ballade, this one is more compact, and while its idiosyncrasies may be un-charming for some, it packs a nice little punch in its less-than-eight-minutes.
It might be a good place to start, actually, for these literary forms like the ballade. Chopin wrote four, and other contributors to the form include Clara Schumann, Franck, Brahms, John Ireland. But some (many?) of the works of The Mr. Schumann are literary in nature, taking their inspiration from poems or works of literature, a rather Romantic idea, I feel, but might not be as straightforward as this one. Chopin’s second ballade in particular is quite easy to follow, and while some attribute its source of inspiration as “Adam Mickiewicz‘s poem Świtezianka”, it’s disputed, and frankly irrelevant. I enjoy the piece plenty and I have never read any Polish poetry. Also of note is that some people claim that the aforementioned poem is actually (or also) the inspiration for the third ballade, which we shall also talk about this week. Stay tuned.