Genres Genres

Chopin's approach to genres and genre titles was among the most interesting and radical of all early Romantic composers. He made two major contributions to our understanding of genre in the nineteenth century. In the first place his abandonment of the conventional genres of 1820s concert music led to the establishment of new controlling genres in which he rejected earlier meanings of the genre title but retained many of the connotative values of the that title. And secondly, these redefinitions involved the importation of generic fragments as 'topics', so that we may speak of 'host' genres and 'guest' genres, allowing for an play between genres on different levels of musical meaning. We will look at each of these contributions in turn.

Chopin's Warsaw-period music conformed to the genres associated with popular post-classical pianism: polonaises (by no means exclusive to Polish composers), variations or pot-pourris, independent rondos, and concertos. From the early 1830s onwards, however, he rejected or re-defined these genres, embarking on a thorough-going renovation of genre. Rather than use genre titles arbitrarily or loosely in the manner of other pianist-composers at the time, he arrived at very specific, though not always conventional, generic meanings, established through an internal consistency in their application. This really amounted to giving generic authority to the free-ranging devices of an emergent, early nineteenth-century repertory, crystallising the meanings of some existing titles (etudes, impromptus, mazurkas and nocturnes), transforming the meanings of others (preludes, scherzos, polonaises) and devising new titles for piano music (ballades).

The new generic stability associated with his music from the mid 1830s to the early 1840s can be rather easily established in those genres where the sample is large, as with the nocturne, waltz and mazurka. Indeed that very stability enabled a measure of subversion, where the composer could, and did, deliberately thwart the expectations established by the genre title. The G-minor Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 3 is an obvious case in point; Chopin could only subvert the genre because a clear correspondence of title and content had already been established. But perhaps the most interesting case studies are the three genres comprising four pieces each, the impromptu, scherzo and ballade. These three cycles of four pieces were created between c.1834 and 1842, and they provide working models of how genre functions in Chopin's music. For all three genres we can establish normative elements - embracing dimensions, formal design, phraseology, and a repertory of specific gestures - which interlock across the four pieces. And for all three we can identify purposeful deviations which strengthen the norms and carry much of the expressive burden of the music. Incidentally, given that Chopin totally refined the polonaise with Op. 26 (after several years when he composed no polonaises), we might add the four mature polonaise opuses - 26, 40, 44, 53 - to these cycles. Again the time span is between c.1834 and 1842.

What this demonstrates is that Chopin was a composer deeply committed to genre as a compositional control, a force for conformity and stability, a channel through which the work might seek a fixed and final meaning. In this sense, genres are 'universals'. Yet at the same time - and this bring us to the second of his contributions to our understanding of genre in the nineteenth century - he used genre as a powerful communicative tool by allowing generic referents or 'topics' to slide in and out of different contexts. Thus we find, for example, the chorale in the nocturnes, the funeral march in the prelude; the waltz in the mazurka, the barcarolle in the ballade, and the mazurka in the waltz. It is worth noting that these 'guest' genres are usually drawn from what we may loosely call popular culture, and that as such they are grounded in social functions - dance, worship, mourning, procession - and often refer to rather specific affective states; indeed their role can be partly to socialise the more extreme affective states. In this way certain genres played a dual role in Chopin. The waltz is probably the major case in point. We might examine the waltzes as structural wholes with their own generic identity. But at the same time we might examine waltz 'topics' that cut across generic boundaries to prise open the closed meanings of works and forge links with other moments in Chopin and beyond.

Interestingly, there is some evidence of a loosening of generic definition in Chopin's final years, after the completion of the closed cycles mentioned above (impromptus, scherzos, ballades, polonaises). Partly this involved a return to more classical genres such as the sonata (Op. 58, Op. 65), and we should note that in these two late sonatas Chopin treated the generic archetype more traditionally than in Op. 35. Partly it meant investing in popular genres that lacked any prior tradition in significant art music (the Berceuse, Op. 57; the Barcarolle, Op. 60). And partly it led to new types of generic hybridity (the Polonaise-Fantasy, Op. 61). It is perhaps no coincidence that Chopin was undecided about a genre title for two of the greatest of these late works: the Berceuse and the Polonaise-Fantasy. We have yet more evidence here that at the end of his short life, Chopin was travelling 'back to the future'. He was at one and the same time an explorer, crossing new frontiers, and a nostalgic, remembering not just a generalised past but the past of his Warsaw years.

Jim Samson
August 2009