With a book of verse before him
(Julian Fontana on Chopin)
The nineteen known songs by Chopin for voice and piano constitute a highly valuable supplement to the picture of his oeuvre. Although the composer did not have them published during his lifetime, by no means may they be treated as marginal works. Admittedly, the level of their artistic refinement does vary, but they all bear traces of the Chopin style, and this very fact is enough to place them within the scope of our interest. According to the testimony of Ferenc Liszt, author of the first biography of Chopin, 'he liked to be given poetry and the latest songs brought from Poland, and if the words of one of them was to his liking, he would put his own melody to them, which would soon spread around the country, often remaining nameless'.
In Chopin's times, the song genre was one of the most important in music, perfectly fulfilling the Romantic postulate of the correspondance des arts. It reached the supreme heights of artistry in the work of Schubert (d.1828), whose Lieder laid down the conventions of the era. The great continuator of this tradition was Chopin's contemporary, Robert Schumann. In contrast to them-and to most composers of the Romantic era-Chopin was not so interested in song, composing his vocal works only occasionally, concentrating his energies on piano music. In spite of this, it is likely that he was intending to publish them, although this ultimately occurred only after his death, in an edition by Julian Fontana (1859).
The simplicity and often complete unpretentiousness of a number of Chopin's songs has meant that many Polish commentators prefer to apply to them the diminutive forms of piosenka or piosnka rather than the conventional word pieśń. But this seems inappropriate, as the songs by the composer of the ballades and mazurkas contain much beauty and grace. Moreover, in the history of Polish music pre-Moniuszko they are an outstanding and isolated phenomenon. Chopin confined himself in his songs to Polish poetry (with the exception of the Lithuanian Song, to
a Lithuanian folk text in Polish translation), choosing mostly poets of his own generation, not infrequently his personal friends and acquaintances.
- Stefan Witwicki (1801-1847), 10 songs
- Bohdan Zaleski (1802-1886), 4 songs
- Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), 2 songs
- Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859), 1 song
- Wincenty Pol (1807-1872), 1 song
- Ludwik Osiński (1775-1838), 1 song
This group contained both eminent representatives of European romanticism (Mickiewicz, Krasiński) and also-predominantly-poets of a lesser rank. Chopin willingly read poetry by all these authors. He certainly remembered many folk songs from his childhood and youth, but also society and national songs; he was also inspired by songs, idylls and dumas by Polish composers, including Elsner, Kurpiński and Szymanowska.
In Chopin's songs, the subject matter, character and type of setting are various. They are often strophic songs, such as the lively, carefree, dance-like Drinking Song or the well known A Maiden's Wish-an idyllic confession full of vitality and charm (both to words by Witwicki). Initially, it is the idyll, dumka and romance that dominate. After his departure from Poland, the period when he was experiencing from afar the drama and tragedy of the November Rising (1830-31) gave rise to the poignantly elegiac songs Troubled Waters and The Bridegroom's Return. In subsequent years, Chopin would turn increasingly towards reflective songs, of profound expression, excellent examples of which are Poland's Dirge, to words by Wincenty Pol, and Bowed ‘neath their crosses, to a text by Krasiński, both about the dramatic situation of Poles in exile following the failed insurrection. Among the most beautiful of Chopin's songs, and at the same time much brighter in colour, are also the masterly Lithuanian Song, the flirtatious My Beloved and the captivatingly sentimental The Ring. In many songs, the attentive listener will discern clear inspirations from Polish folk music.