COMPOSITIONS compositions

Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13 incypit

Genre: Orchestral works

Key: A major

Opus/WN: Op. 13

Creation date: 1828/1829

Acc. to Paderewski: part.: XXI wyc. fort.: XV

Acc. to Turło: 41

Instruments: piano & orchestra

Composition dedicated to:

Johann Peter Pixis


Chopin composed the Fantasy on Polish Airs most probably in 1828, but did not perform it until 1830. It was published in 1833, and so in his Parisian years, as a Fantasie sur des Airs Nationaux Polonais. In his review of the first Warsaw concert, Maurycy Mochnacki described this work as a ‘potpourri of national airs’, emphasising the ‘beautiful simplicity of the native song, which Chopin has assimilated’.

This Fantasy does indeed represent the ‘potpourri’ variety of that many-headed genre, and so a loose bunch of melodies of a common character. Chopin chose three tunes, presented them in variation form and preceded them with an introduction. Yet there is no question of an excessively ‘loose’ form to this work. It has a distinctive dramatic shape and was composed as a coherent whole. Each passage from theme to theme occurs without a drop in tension. On the contrary: the switches are made in a way that arouses interest and expectancy, with anticipation and echo.

The three themes complement one another, forming a whole that is indeed ‘national’ or ‘native’. The first brings us the melody of a romance about Laura and Philo, the second renders the tune of a dumka attributed to Kurpiński but betraying folk provenance, and the third carries the melody of a dance – a kujawiak, the folk character of which is beyond dispute.

In keeping with the conventions of the genre, the body of the work is preceded by an introduction, which proceeds at a slow tempo, Largo ma non troppo. This may be termed a kind of nocturne – the first of Chopin’s nocturnes. Yet it presages not just the nocturnes, for which we will have to wait another two years, but also the larghettos of the two piano concertos. Already we have here that characteristic spinning-out of a narrative somewhere between dreaming and reverie.

The first theme, taken from the song ‘Już miesiąc zeszedł’ [The moon now has risen], is presented in a mellifluous manner by the piano, with the requisite sweetness (dolce) and simplicity (semplice). The arabesque of the melody moves along against the nocturne-like ostinato accompaniment and the soft murmuring of the strings. It is followed by successive variations, which break up the tune into pieces. In the second variation, the movement of the figurations increases, and the last is overcome by a pianistic frenzy. One must not forget that in this composition, too, Chopin submitted to the rules of the style brillant. A hush, the octave of the horns announces a new phase in the narrative; the second theme comes in – Kurpiński’s theme, a dumka representing the folklore of the south of the country, more Ukrainian than Cracovian. It recently came to light where Chopin found this theme. It is a literal quotation from Karol Kurpiński’s melodramatic Elegia na śmierć Tadeusza Kościuszki [Elegy on the death of Tadeusz Kościuszko]. Hence the change of key is self-evident: from the buoyant A major of Laura and Philo to the pensive and doleful F sharp minor. In the Kurpiński, this melody was accompanied by words from Kantorbery Tymowski: ‘Sorrow now stood in every home’.

The striking of the orchestra and the piano con fuoco and con forza may have been meant to convey the sudden impression made on Poles by the news of Kościuszko’s death. What follows is a thoughtful, meditative nocturne. One admires the way Chopin transformed the supremely simple dumka melody into a masterfully sophisticated and expressively distinctive song of the night. Again, we have exuberant figuration, calmed for a moment before resuming its frenzy. In comes a vigorous kujawiak, close at times to an oberek.

Earlier commentators wondered how this peculiarly sounding theme found its way into Chopin’s music. Did he devise it himself or did he hear it somewhere? The doubts were dispelled by the indispensable Oskar Kolberg: ‘There is not the slightest doubt that this is a folk motif’, he explained to the hesitant monographer Marceli Antoni Szulc. The pre-eminent ethnographer even directed Szulc to one of the volumes of his collection Lud [The people], in which he cites the prototype of Chopin’s kujawiak. Kolberg found it in Służewo, in the Cuiavia region. But how did Chopin come to hear this kujawiak? Kolberg presents two hypotheses: either Chopin heard it himself at the Wodzińskis’ home in Służewo (though as yet we do not know whether he was ever their guest) or one of the young Wodzińskis hummed it to Chopin one day.

The Fantasy on Polish Airs is a concert work, and so it cannot dispense with a coda, which is just as vigorous and insistent as the kujawiak itself.

Warsaw heard the Fantasy three times. For the first time in the Chopins’ drawing-room on Krakowskie Przedmieście, in March 1830. The group of musicians was conducted by Kurpiński, and the audience comprised the musical elite, led by Elsner. A gushing review was forthcoming. That same month, Chopin performed his ‘Potpuria’ on Polish themes in a grand concert at the Grand Theatre. He was a bit disappointed by his performance. The piano at his disposal had rather a thin sound. Even Mochnacki criticised the playing for being too quiet. The error was rectified for Chopin’s last Warsaw concert, on 11 October that year, which took place a few weeks before the outbreak of the November Uprising, in front of an audience of around 700.

Chopin wrote about the October performance in a letter: ‘After leading Miss Gładkowska from the stage, we set about the Potpourri on the Moon that has risen, etc. This time I knew what I was doing, and the orchestra knew what it was doing, and the parterre appreciated. Only on this occasion did the mazur at the end [the kujawiak that closes the Fantasy] draw great applause, after which I was called back out – not once did anyone hiss, and I had time to bow 4 times’. That success was no accident. The conductor, Carlo Soliva, led the orchestra splendidly – ‘like never before’, according to Chopin. And Chopin played this time on a Viennese Streicher piano – the best available in Warsaw at that time.

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


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