A pre-concert note #1: Songs, sonnets, and Chopin’s two masterpieces for the piano

Chopin's piano dreams

Chopin’s songs and sonnets for the piano?  Yes, very much so, in F sharp major and F minor respectively.  And yes, we are talking about the Barcarolle and the 4th Ballade.  The first is Chopin’s “imaginary journey” to Venice and moonlight on the Venetian waters.  The second is a piece that perhaps encapsulates Chopin at his most passionately personal and thus represents his “song”.

And yes, let’s talk about Chopin, the “poet of the piano”

Each is an inspired masterpiece from Chopin’s peak as a composer: the Barcarolle has been called “a work of bewildering beauty”, with French pianist-composer Maurice Ravel commenting:

“Chopin was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique.  His figurations are inspired.  Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies.  Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair … The Barcarolle is the synthesis of the expressive and sumptuous art of this great Slav.” 

The Ballade in F minor for its part has always inspired love, with British pianist John Ogdon calling it:

“the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions”

while Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda spoke of the music’s “real explosive power”.

Both the Barcarolle and the Ballade in F minor are works from Chopin’s “mature” period and each represents in its own way the summit of Chopin’s art.

Perhaps worth highlighting that Chopin had never been to Venice!  His evocation of the song of the gondoliers derives not from the recall of a musical memory, but rather from an imaginative journey into moonlight on waters.  Half dreamy nocturne, half heart-wringing love cry, it alternates between poetic reflection and restless passionate outburst.  This 8-minute long piece seems to encapsulate in a single work the full range of Chopinesque musical sensibility.

The piece most definitely took on-board the tradition of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, but its sophisticated harmonies and lengthy chromatic modulations surpasses all previous traditions and made it quite unlike any other in piano music at the time.  It is perhaps no wonder the composer played it frequently in his concerts in Paris, London and in his last public concert, in Scotland.

As for the Ballade (Chopin wrote 4 of these), Chopin was really the first composer to make it a musical genre.  The ballade was at the time of the 19th century one of the favorite idioms of Romantic poetry, and an ideal medium for story-telling. Chopin’s Ballades can be seen as stories inspired by other stories, with his Ballades inspiring Liszt, Brahms, Grieg and others to compose ballades of their own.  Chopin’s 4 Ballades remain today a mainstay of the pianist’s repertoire.

The fourth Ballade opens softly with notes that seems to come out of nowhere (distant bells, some say) and is nowhere near F minor (until the 8th bar), the piece becomes increasingly rich in texture and polyphonically intricate as it progresses, with incredible harmonic modulations and effects, including a section in C flat major (a tritone away from F minor), a canonic treatment of the first subject almost as a homage to Bach (there is much more counterpoint there than in the previous 3 Ballades), and a dramatic build-up (with 5 slow pianissimo chords following three chords played fff) to the coda that is fiery and intricate, reminding us of Chopin’s capacity for large-scale architectures (that allow for dramas and heroics) as well as an ability to speak with the most intimacy, utmost tenderness and as if in confidence.  It ends resolutely, and with inevitability, in F minor.

We could say that in these 2 masterpieces, we find a most beautiful song without words and a most passionate song that dares not speak in words.

P.S. You asked: song vs sonnet, what’s the difference?

Song … is a musical composition with lyrics for voices, performed by singing.  Sonnet … a fixed verse form of Italian origin consisting of fourteen lines that are typically five-foot iambics and rhyme according to one of a few prescribed schemes.

So songs are more about the music and sonnets are more about words in a verse form and often in a “lyrical” pattern.

There, mysteries resolved.   



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