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The Rondo à la krakowiak was written in Warsaw in 1828, under the guidance of Józef Elsner. At the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow, one can see the manuscript of the score, dedicated to Princess Anna Czartoryska, née Sapieha. On page 28, in the part of the horns – accompanying the piano and the strings – there are three bars written in a different script. And beneath them, in Chopin’s handwriting, the words ‘in Elsner’s hand’. As we can see, the master was keeping a watchful eye over his pupil.

This was only the second composition (after the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations) in which Chopin, in his third year of studies at the Main School of Music, wrestled with an orchestral accompaniment to the piano. And the young composer can be said to have passed the test. In the Krakowiak, the orchestra is a distinct partner to the piano, despite being used only sparingly. The Krakowiak was written in the style brillant, which assigns to the orchestra the sole function of accompanying and supplementing. It is the virtuoso who has the dominant voice. It is he who is to show his pianistic capabilities, displaying his complete mastery of the keyboard, although the orchestra can also be full of vigour, especially in the tutti passages.

Yet the most interesting colouristic effects appear when the strings accompany the piano modestly, most often with long-held chords played full bow. Elsewhere, for the sake of variety, arco playing replaces pizzicato. In places, the piano dialogues with the wind instruments, yet the piano has the dominant voice: it presents the work’s basic themes and later subjects them to lively figuration.

The Krakowiak has the form of a rondo. Its principal theme – the refrain – is the most typical krakowiak: a lively dance, wilful (thanks to its numerous syncopations), pugnacious and full of panache. Its melody, though not a quotation, will seem familiar to anyone who knows ‘Albośmy to jacy tacy’ [That’s just how we are].

Against the melody of the refrain stands that of the episode (or couplet). It has the character of a dance of Ukrainian provenance and is close to a kolomyika. Interestingly, the first time it was heard in Warsaw, Maurycy Mochnacki had the impression that he was listening to a dance by Carpathian highlanders. In Jachimecki’s opinion, an echo can be heard in the highland dances from Moniuszko’s Halka.

At the time Chopin composed his Rondo à la krakowiak, the titular dance was leading what might be termed a double life. Its folk provenance and rural vitality were obvious to all, yet since the end of the previous century, when it first entered the ballroom, raised to the status of a society dance, it had remained there, together with the polonaise and the mazur, forming a triple canon of national dances. In the very same year that Chopin placed the date beneath the last bar of the score of his Rondo à la krakowiak, Kazimierz Brodziński, in an essay entitled ‘O tańcach narodowych’ [On the national dances], gave a colourful description of the dance in question. A concise, concrete description of the krakowiak was provided a quarter of a century later by Oskar Kolberg: ‘The dance proceeds in accordance with a melody that is more often tender than gay, in a 2/4 measure, with the stress on the second and fourth, and so the weak beat in the bar, or on both crotchets’.

When listening to the Ronda à la krakowiak, we sense that it was written by someone not unfamiliar with the element of dance. It was first heard on a concert platform in Vienna. Chopin did not hide his joy and pride from his parents. In a letter of August 1829, he boasted: ‘With my Rondo, I won over all the professional musicians. From kapellmeister Lachner through to the piano-tuner, they marvel at the beauty of this composition. […] Gyrowetz [it was his concerto that the eight-year-old Fryderyk performed in his first public appearance in Warsaw]… Gyrowetz – standing close to Celiński – cried out and applauded. Only in the case of the Germans do I not know if I pleased them’.

That was in the second of his Viennese concerts. And in the first? Already in that first rendition of the Rondo, it was supposed to bring his performance to a close, but fate decreed otherwise. In a letter to his parents, we find what may amount to a terse explanation: ‘at the rehearsal, the orchestra accompanied so badly that I changed the Rondo into a Freie Fantasie’. Warsaw heard the Krakowiak in March the following year, in the second concert at the National Theatre. The reporter for the Kurier Warszawski related: ‘Yesterday again 900 people came. The virtuoso was greeted with tumultuous applause, which was constantly renewed, especially after the rendition of the Cracovian Rondo’.

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


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Rondo a la krakowiak in F major, Op. 14 Op. 14
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