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Chopin wrote the Ballade in A flat major during the summer of 1841. It proved to be different to his two earlier works in the genre. Although it does have its moments of dark, sinister, powerful gradations, it is dominated by bright sonorities, a colouring that is full of lustre, even sparkling. Yet there is no doubt that this is a ballade. Its tone – that tone of epic narration – is felt from the opening bars of the singing and telling first theme, conjoined with its rather disturbing complement – a portent of things to come. The second theme brings that sparkle to the narrative: it is dancing, coquettish, rhythmically wilful and constantly syncopating.

A third, additional theme also appears in the Ballade. It emerges, spreads its charms all around, and then vanishes. And having run its course, through passages and fioriture, it returns for just a moment in the closing bars. All the events of this Ballade are played out between the music of the first two themes – the songful and the sparkling. They grow and bloom in a fullness of sound, elude one another and intertwine, join together and separate. In moments of ecstasy, they are transformed beyond recognition.

The Chopin monographer Arthur Hedley summarised the action of the A flat major Ballade as follows: ‘The only tale that the A flat major Ballade tells is how [the opening theme] is transformed into [its ultimate shape]’. But that précis is clearly offered half in jest. In the music of the A flat major Ballade, which unfolds a dizzying array of events, attempts have been made to discern and identify the separate motifs, characters and moods. Two possible sources of inspiration have been inferred. Interestingly, they can be reduced to a common, supremely Romantic, denominator. Schumann was captivated by the very ‘breath of poetry’ emanating from this Ballade. Niecks heard in it ‘a quiver of excitement’. ‘Insinuation and persuasion cannot be more irresistible,’ he wrote, ‘grace and affection more seductive’. In the opinion of Jan Kleczyński, it is the third (not the second) Ballade that is ‘evidently inspired by [Adam Mickiewicz’s tale of] Undine. That passionate theme is in the spirit of the song “Rusalka.” The ending vividly depicts the ultimate drowning, in some abyss, of the fated youth in question’.[i]

A different source is referred to by Zygmunt Noskowski: ‘Those close and contemporary to Chopin’, he wrote in 1902, ‘maintained that the Ballade in A flat major was supposed to represent Heine’s tale of the Lorelei – a supposition that may well be credited when one listens attentively to that wonderful rolling melody, full of charm, alluring and coquettish. Such was surely the song of the enchantress on the banks of the River Rhine’, ends Noskowski, ‘lying in wait for an unwary sailor – a sailor who, bewitched by the seductress’s song, perishes in the river’s treacherous waters’.

As we can see, at some points the two suppositions come together; they are archetypically close to each other. Yet they remain nothing more than suppositions. And Chopin shunned the tenets of so-called programmatic music, just as he disliked dotting his i’s. And when listening to the A flat major Ballade, one of the masterworks composed under George Sand welcoming roof, that is something worth keeping in mind.


[i] Jean Kleczynski [Jan Kleczyński], Chopin’s Greater Works, tr. Natalie Janotha (London, n.d.), 68.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II


 
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Ballade in A flat major, Op. 47
 
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