COMPOSITIONS compositions


‘I hope I’ll not write anything worse in a hurry’ – such was Chopin’s rather unflattering assessment of the Tarantella.

Whilst that opinion would appear to be expressive of coquetry or nonchalance, it might also contain a dose of deliberate self-criticism, as the Tarantella represents ‘a work from a period of transition’. Close in ‘spirit’, tone and character to both the Bolero and several Waltzes (Opp. 18, 34 and 42), it is embroiled in a period of scherzos, ballades, nocturnes and sonatas. That does not mean that it may be called an unsuccessful work. It is rather a curious piece, and one that is unexpected in this particular period in the Chopin oeuvre.

There is no way of ascertaining why Chopin decided to write this work – what inspired him to do so. One might consider some fleeting contact with popular Italian music during the spring of 1839, in Genoa, but we have no details of that episode in his expedition (with George Sand and her children) to the south of Europe. It might also have been a commission from a publisher, though there are no documents to that effect. Then there is a third possible explanation: his fascination with Rossini and with his vocal tarantella, which (under the title ‘La Danza’) became a hit of its day. And this last hypothesis would appear to be closest to the truth. We know that Chopin was familiar with Rossini’s Tarantella, and so we might be dealing with a transferral of this dance-vocal genre to the domain of purely instrumental music – for piano. Shortly after arriving in Nohant, Chopin wrote to Julian Fontana with the manuscript of the Tarantella (to be copied): ‘Take a look at the Recueil of Rossini songs […] where the Tarantella (en la) appears. I don’t know if it was written in 6/8 or 2/8. Both versions are in use, but I’d prefer it to be like the Rossini’. It was in 6/8, and Chopin notated his Tarantella in that metre. In copying the manuscript, Fontana did not have to change a thing.

Chopin wrote the whole piece in a single breath, and essentially in a single rhythm; if it was altered, it was only through diminution.

Chopin, after Rossini, bids the pianist fall into a trance and stay there right to the end, without a moment’s pause. The dance is a mosaic of themes presented in the most regular eight-bar units. The themes are four in number and are divided by bridge passages. They are repeated and intertwined without a moment’s respite. The first theme sets the tone and character of a dance senza fine – one that, if repeated, could last endlessly. The bridge, or rather interlude, brings fleeting sharp accents, leaping out of the monotony of the dance motion. The second theme has the character of an episode, which slightly alters the narrative. It is followed by another interlude, also sharp and lively. The third theme brings some tunefulness. Finally, the fourth theme is distinguished by the strength of its accents and sforzatos. This real mosaic of themes – not contrasted, but merely differentiated, proceeding in a single tempo, to the point of breathlessness – is crowned by a frenzied coda.

‘[The Tarantella] is as little Italian as the Bolero is Spanish’, noted James Huneker with irony. ‘Chopin’s visit to Italy was of too short a duration to affect him, at least in the style of dance. It is without the necessary ophidian tang’. Ferdynand Hoesick went even further in his criticism: ‘The Tarantella was written by an incomparable master, but he wrote it soberly and with difficulty. In this ostensible ardour, there is coldness. Only Arthur Hedley defended it, although still not entirely: ‘it catches the spirit of the frenzied dance’, but ‘there is no Italian gaiety’.

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


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Nikolai Demidenko

Tarantella in A flat major, Op. 43 Op. 43
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