Chopin: Four Mazurkas, op. 17

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, with the fourth below it played sublimely by Eric Lu

(cover image by Jez Timms)

 

Chopin composed his op. 17 mazurkas between 1832 and 1833, and they were published in Leipzig in 1834. The composer had recently settled in France and had hoped to move back to his homeland, but this never happened. I would say this is part of the reason for the melancholy spirit that reveals itself in this set of four little Polish pieces, but really… that’s the case for all of Chopin’s music, isn’t it?

The mazurka, in case you didn’t know, ” is a Polish folk dance in triple meter, usually at a lively tempo, and with “strong accents unsystematically placed on the second or third beat.”

  1. Vivo e risoluto
  2. Lento, ma non troppo
  3. Legato assai
  4. Lento, ma non troppo

The Wikipedia article gives general enough rundowns of the four pieces in this set: the first piece begins with a bold theme in B flat, then “followed by a section in question and answer.” All that stuff you can go there and read.

The first, maybe the brightest, most ebullient of the set, begins with an almost heroic, bold stature, but calms down into the sort of cheery salon music we expect a mazurka to be. It goes without saying that in even the smallest of details, Chopin’s craft with the piano is noticeable.

If it weren’t for the clear triple-meter waltz-like step of this piece, the minor key and the more somber nature make it almost akin to a nocturne. It’s obviously more subdued than the first, but in its slight twinge of melancholy, is indicative of the very personal character of Chopin’s mazurkas. They’re really captivating, no matter how brief.

The third is in A flat major, and is one of the longest mazurkas the composer wrote, apparently. It could well be the longest individual piece in our series, at 4 minutes in Ashkenazy’s recording (if his reading of the fourth in this set weren’t slightly longer). One thing I’ll quote about this work from the Wikipedia article:

It doesn’t follow traditional harmonic progressions (giving it a peculiar sound). There are no subdominant (IV) or submediant (VI) chords in the entire movement. Most of the movement is composed of dominants (and their dominants), tonics, iii or III, and vii° chords.

For those of you who know what that means, you may find it interesting. It’s in a major key, but not nearly as bright and cheerful as the first.

The fourth mazurka in this set, in A minor, is pensive and spellbinding. It, like many of the composer’s nocturnes, is made up of veils, shadow and light, drawing you into a magical world, even if it’s only for two or three minutes.

What’s so charming about these four pieces, and yes, charming really is the word, is that they all focus pretty straightforwardly on small-scale material. They make even the second or third ballades seem epic, and yet somehow still manage to impart a disproportionately intoxicating atmosphere.

There’s a dichotomy of some kind, I think, with how concentrated the atmospheres are in this piece. You can’t even really call it emotion, because it isn’t one; it’s a palette of feelings and textures, and the unassuming length of these works is part of what makes them so alluring. You could very easily take these at face value, little gems of musical ideas, perhaps evoking thoughts of Satie or Scriabin, both of whom would come much later (these pieces, as with much from Chopin, are so individual as not to have any real identifiable predecessors, in my opinion; maybe Field’s nocturnes), but on the other hand, there’s a subtle wink from the composer, a suggestion that there may just be something of a very personal nature, of great depth in these small pieces. Recall Chopin’s thoughts and feelings on his homeland. All of that is more to ponder than answer, and as far as this set of mazurkas goes, I’m perfectly happy to leave those thoughts unfinished and just listen.

At this point, we’ve covered 13 of his 58 published mazurkas, so… there’s plenty more to get around to, but how could you be in a rush with works like this? We’ll see another set again in a year or something, probably. Indeed, the first two sets we discussed were part of 2016’s July piano series. All in good time.

In the meantime, stay tuned for some really spectacular piano music of all various, small types, and thank you so much for reading.

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