Chopin’s new style was born laboriously, the struggles attested by the quantity (unusual hitherto) of notes and compositional sketches. After Jeffrey Kallberg and Maria Piotrowska, it is beginning to be called ‘last Chopin’. The Polonaise-Fantasy was the first work on that path. Perhaps no other Chopin work combines Polish heroic gestures with romantic-oneiric melancholy – that which is most characteristic of a polonaise with that which is closest to a nocturne – in such a very restricted and contradictory whole. Chopin produced extensive sketches for the Polonaise-Fantasy, the title of which only came at the end. Earlier, he had confessed: ‘I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call’. He completed it in August 1846.
Above the opening bars, he clarified the tempo marking with an indication of the expression which the work was to emanate: maestoso. It is a word he had previously used to characterise the music of a few polonaises: in E flat minor, C minor and A flat major (‘Grande’). He had also imparted a maestoso character to the first movements of both concertos. For Chopin, maestoso meant ‘with dignity and pride’. Seriousness and thought prevailed over enthusiasm.
In the Polonaise-Fantasy, the dignified élan of the polonaise is accompanied by the melancholy reflection of the fantasy. The distinctly expressive sounds of polonaise chords are followed by ‘contemplative’ fantasy arpeggios, seemingly following the trail of successive harmonics. Nota bene these arpeggios, without which it is hard to imagine this work today, only found their way into the Polonaise-Fantasy in the final version. In an earlier manuscript, they are conspicuous by their absence.
So Chopin begins his Fantasy in contemplation. The first two phrases (in A flat minor) are followed by two more (in E flat minor), now completely hushed, as if far away in their thoughts. And then gradually, with difficulty, the polonaise theme starts to rise. A moment hence, it will enter the stage, announced by a polonaise rhythm. It enters not as a hero, but by means of a songful, almost lyrical melody. Its heroic features only manifest themselves a while later. And just after that, we hear the polonaise ‘glory and honour’ full on.
Feliks Jabłczyński, author of an essay on Chopin’s polonaises that was conceived in an aura of Young Poland rapture, wrote justifiably: ‘Neither the “Eroica” nor the “Appassionata” of Beethoven has a single section of such raging passion – not so much a strength of mechanical striking and bravura, since those can be found in both Liszt and Berlioz, but a strength of inner passion – all the stronger in that with Chopin it is simple, natural, the concentration of all man’s faculties: senses, thought, willpower, physical strength and strength of feeling. At times, this fervour is almost pious… battles have been won with such fervour…’ Yet the music in question lasts only a moment in the Polonaise-Fantasy, though it will return and ultimately triumph. But before that happens, new scenes and events will pass in succession before the listener’s imagination. Stanisław Tarnowski once compared the situation in this work to situations from a Byron poem, to those shifting ‘dream images’ that anticipate the poetic of Buñuelian cinema. Chopin is generous. He does not stint on his themes, although some of them seem to be no more than narrative modifications, at times transformations, of themes encountered earlier. Their function and character have been pondered by Eero Tarasti, author of one of the most interesting attempts at interpreting this work, at penetrating its sense.
Immediately after that first heroic flight, the narrative of the Polonaise-Fantasy withdraws into the shade of music that is flowing, songful and subdued. A moment later, there comes a new sound image, a section of fretful, agitato music, but then directly afterwards, as in Byron, ‘A change came o’er the spirit of my dream’… We behold music that is wondrously songful, at first delicate, gentle (dolce) and idyllic; with each bar that passes, it gains in strength, like recollection animated by an influx of memory. Then another episode, another scene, of nocturne-like provenance: a melody that is initially timid and stifled strikes a note of request, of beseechment, even of prayer.
Chopin’s imagination leads the listener through shifting tracts of associations and memories, wandering through a succession of keys. And this all occurs as if in a dream, yet at the same time as if the destination were constantly known. The polonaise theme has reached its acme, climbed to its peak. The coda merely confirms our certainty of having arrived at the destination. Admittedly, the final bars – with their quieting and freezing in a single rhythm – might have brought doubts. Were it not, that is, for the closing chord, so characteristic of ‘last Chopin’, signifying the vanquishing of doubt through the supreme power of will.
The work was published that very same year, 1846, in late autumn: in Paris, London and Leipzig. Its shape and its style caused much consternation. It was quite some time before listeners could come to terms with it. As Jachimecki stated: ‘the piano speaks here in a language not previously known’.
For many years, in many environments, the Polonaise-Fantasy, Op. 61 remained on the very margins of Chopin’s oeuvre. Incomprehensibly, it was least understood by those who got the most out of it, so to speak: the ‘new wave’ musicians, led by Ferenc Liszt. With his opinion of the work, expressed in his controversial monograph from 1852, Liszt did a great deal of damage, since he was an acknowledged authority. To the mind of that authority, the Polonaise-Fantasy was dominated by ‘an elegiac tristesse […] punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides…’. Later even Marceli Szulc wavered over his assessment of a work that he deemed ‘less deeply conceived’. More curiously still, Jan Kleczyński failed to appreciate the greatness of a work composed in a style that was alien to him: ‘the general ideas are somewhat indistinct,’ was how he accounted for his disinclination towards this work, ‘their working out is lost in complications […] and certainly no great impression is made upon the hearer’.[i] Frederick Niecks’s judgment was that the Polonaise-Fantasy ‘stands, on account of its pathological contents, outside the sphere of art’.
At the same time, the work’s legend grew. There was a desire to see it as a musical representation or equivalent of the scene of Jankiel’s concert from Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. That assumption was circulated by the above-mentioned Stanisław Tarnowski, who was associated with the circle of Marcelina Czartoryska. A few years later, a hermeneutic interpretation was put forward by Zdzisław Jachimecki, who read the Polonaise-Fantasy as a composition inspired by the idea of Juliusz Słowacki’s tragedy Lilla Weneda and by particular scenes from that play.
Justice was rendered to this work, as a wonderful poetical vision expressed in the language of a grand pianistic poem, above all by great pianists, with Neuhaus, Horowitz, Rubinstein and Małcużyński to the fore.
And as for the extra-musical message borne by this work, there has never really been any doubt. It was encapsulated by Arthur Hedley, writing about the ‘spirit that breathes’ in Chopin’s polonaises: ‘pride in the past, lamentation for the present, hope for the future’.
[i] Jean Kleczynski [Jan Kleczyński], Chopin’s Greater Works, tr. Natalie Janotha (London, n.d.), 97.
Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II