My piano heard nought but mazurs
(Chopin in a letter to his family, 1831)
Each of the mazurkas has an individual poetic feature, something distinctive in form or expression
(Schumann in a review, 1838)
The mazurkas - those famous dance miniatures-are the most numerous group of works by Fryderyk Chopin (fifty-seven). The composer published forty-one of them in eleven opuses, and two pieces separately (without opus number). The others remained in manuscript form.
Alongside the polonaises, they are the most "Polish" of Chopin's works. There would be no mazurkas without Polish folk dances and Polish folk music. With his mazurkas, Chopin forged an unparalleled model of the musical stylisation of traditional, national, authentic folk repertory.
Chopin composed mazurkas virtually throughout his life, from around 1825 (aged fifteen) to 1849. These miniatures came to form a weighty tome of the composer's most personal musical utterances, a lyrical ‘journal' of his life. It is perhaps in the mazurkas, more than in any other works, that Chopin allows the listener into his "heart's sanctuary".
Pianistically uncomplicated, the mazurkas display an inexhaustible wealth of melodic invention and of harmonic, rhythmic and, above all, expressive nuances. They demand of the pianist "at the same time an almost naive freshness and a mature mastery" (Tomaszewski). When making the first recording, in 1938-39, of the complete set of mazurkas, their great interpreter, Artur Rubinstein, demonstrated to the record producers in the studio the steps of Polish folk dances, in order to show them the character of these works.
And indeed, without an elementary knowledge of Polish folk music it is difficult to understand Chopin's mazurka idiom. Drawing on the Polish traditions of the folk mazurka, but also of the popular and stylised mazurka, the composer made direct reference to three folk dances which he knew well from numerous visits to the Polish countryside: the mazur, kujawiak and oberek. All three are in triple time and have a characteristic rhythm:
[dwie szesnastki dwie ósemki] lub [dwie ósemki dwie ćwierćnuty]
The mazur, lively and temperamental in character, in a quite brisk tempo, with a tendency towards irregular accents, forms the basis of many Chopin works (e.g. the Rondo à la Mazur, Op. 5, Mazurka in B flat major, Op. 7 No. 1). The second of the basic dances for the mazurka is the kujawiak (the name comes from the region of Kujawy), in a slow tempo, with a tuneful melody. We hear a stylisation of a kujawiak, for example, in the Mazurka in E minor, Op. 17 No. 2. And finally the oberek-a lively dance in a quick or very quick tempo, with a cheerful, or even exuberant, character. The oberek inspired, among others, the outer sections of the Mazurka in D major, Op. 33 No. 2.
It is possible to find clear similarities between certain mazurkas and authentic Polish folk tunes, yet Chopin never quoted from an authentic folk melody. Quite the opposite: in his mazurkas he creates a brilliant, sublimated synthesis of many elements of folk provenance, not infrequently combining in a single mazurka features from more than one dance. Among the means of stylisation he employs are folk scales, particularly the Lydian and Phrygian.
Indispensable to the interpretation of these works is rubato-the use of free accelerations and decelerations. Chopin usually published mazurkas in sets of three or four to a single opus. His early works in the genre still display clear hallmarks of typical piano miniatures (small dimensions, symmetry of sections), while the late mazurkas turn into expansive ‘dance poems', in which Chopin employs exceptionally refined harmonic means-even polyphony.
One of the few composers who were able to creatively carry forward the genre of the piano mazurka after Chopin was Karol Szymanowski (20 Mazurkas, Op. 50).