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In the summer of 1843, Chopin wrote one of his most mature and subtlest works: the Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57. The manuscript of the work’s first sketch was in the possession of Pauline Viardot, hence we may guess that this delicate and tender music was inspired by Chopin’s fascination with the ‘personality’ of Mrs Viardot’s daughter, Louisette. The little creature may have aroused in Chopin memories of the atmosphere of his own family home. The Berceuse, composed at Nohant, appears to constitute a distant echo of a song that Chopin’s mother sang to him: the romance of Laura and Philo, ‘Już miesiąć zeszedł, psy się uśpily’ [The moon now has risen, the dogs are asleep]. (Chopin incorporated the melody of this romance into one of his earlier works: the Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13.)

The Berceuse consists of a series of variations on that theme remembered from his childhood. They are quite singular variations, not divided by rests, barely four bars in length, sailing on a single wave – the arabesque of an increasingly subtle and elaborate melody. Above all, they sail over a single bass figure repeated several dozen times, known as a basso ostinato. Only for a moment, just before the end, does Chopin have the melody run above a different sounding bass.

Chopin tried to write a work designed along similar lines in 1829. That comprised variations on a theme of Paganini, which also succeeded one another without a break. Chopin called that work Variants, which was also the original name of the Berceuse. Its course was summarised by Zdzisław Jachimecki: ‘At first the melody of the Berceuse shows itself in its entirety. It is joined by the middle voice, which with its syncopations banters with the theme [bars 7–10]. Subsequently, the theme sounds solely in grace notes [bars 15–18]. Finally, it is pulverised into some luminous dust, transformed into a volatile state of almost immaterial little passages, trills and fioriture [bars 44–46]. Then (in the ending) it returns in its original form [bars 63–66]’.

Arthur Hedley expressed his admiration for the Berceuse in the following words: ‘The Berceuse is one of those happy inspirations which can never be repeated. A rocking ostinato bass, a short melodic phrase dissolving into sixteen variations – and there we have the cradle-song to discourage any one from attempting to write another.’

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


 
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Berceuse, Op. 57 Op. 57
 
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