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Maturing at Nohant in the summer of 1841 alongside the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 was a composition of an utterly different character: imposing in its dimensions and expressed more in contours than colours, but above all in sharp, distinct, resolute rhythms: the Polonaise in F sharp minor. By the end of August, Chopin was informing the Viennese publisher Mechetti: ‘I  have a manuscript for your disposal. It is a kind of fantasy in polonaise form. But I call it a Polonaise’.

The Polonaise was written in a tense atmosphere. ‘The weather here has been exceedingly lovely for several days’, wrote Chopin to Fontana while bent over the manuscript, ‘but as for my music, it is ugly’. Mrs Sand complained to Marie de Rozières: ‘Two days ago, he said not a word to anyone the whole day. Has someone angered him? Did I say something to worry him?’ In a letter to Doctor Gaubert, her account was more colourful: ‘Chopin’s up to his usual tricks, fuming at his piano. When his mount fails to respond to his intentions, he deals it great blows with his fist, such that the poor piano simply groans. […] he considers himself idle because he’s not crushed by work’.

So the Polonaise in F sharp minor would seem to have been born in a climate of passion and labour. It is the first of the three grand polonaises in which Chopin abandoned the old formula derived directly from dance practice. The time had come for polonaises subjected to free fantasy, for heroic dance poems.

A couple of places are particularly striking. Firstly, the very opening, introduction, exordium, the birth of the theme, the emergence from the keyboard’s lower climes, is closer to the idea of a scherzo than a polonaise. The principal theme brings the anticipated essence of polonaise character: loftiness, dignity, a heroic tone and the vigour of a gesture directed towards the bright, sharp uplands of the keyboard. But in the very next bars, an unexpected lyrical accent appears for a moment – as a counter-theme. The complementary theme (in B flat minor) continues the octaves’ upward momentum, carrying all before it. And then comes another moment of surprise: Chopin has a single motif sound several dozen times, with the utmost passion and force. Perhaps these are the sounds – coming from the other side of the door to Chopin’s drawing-room – that put George Sand in mind of those blows delivered to the piano?

The greatest surprise is afforded the listener by the section that stands in place of the old trio. Here, there is no question that we are listening not to a polonaise, but to a mazurka. It rings out in the bright and clear key of A major, as a nostalgic recollection of old times and faraway places. The complement to the mazurka’s main theme is even more strongly imbued with lyricism. The polonaise returns, of course, with its heroic rhythms and octave flights. At the end, it subsides, before surprising us with the protest of its final note. Among the first reactions to this work, we find the voice of Ferenc Liszt. It is the voice of a listener who is at once both startled and confused, a listener benumbed by those bars preceding the mazurka ‘trio’ that cause him a ‘dismal shudder’, astonished at the power of the polonaise and the idyllic mood of the mazurka, which seems to ‘spread forth the scents of marjoram and mint’, yet brings a bitter contrast and an ironical accent.

In this respect, Liszt was surely right to observe that the energetic rhythms of Chopin’s polonaises ‘thrill and galvanise the torpor of our indifference’.

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


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Janusz Olejniczak

Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44 Op. 44
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