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Chopin spent the first summer months of 1842 working on the Ballade in F minor, the last of his four ballades, different from the two that had gone before it. Neither as impetuous as the F major nor as effervescent as the A flat major, for all its uniqueness the new ballade is close to the Ballade in G minor. It has a similar large-form flamboyance, with the character of a pianistic poem, a similar mood-setting at the outset, a similar drama to the climactic sections and a similar balladic tone throughout. It manifests its otherness through its pianistic texture and through the kind of expression that distinguishes the musical narrative. The texture is thickened: the F minor Ballade was woven to the pattern of two conjoined techniques: variation and polyphony. The narration is marked, to an incomparably higher degree than in the previous ballades, with lyrical expression and reflectiveness. It does not flow so smoothly as the G minor Ballade. The work’s lyrical narrator seems to waver, hesitate, come to a halt, seek the way forwards and begin his tale anew in slightly different words; he imparts to his thoughts a different tonal illumination. Then later, the Ballade’s principal theme, relating, ‘in a voice at first lowered and uncertain’, what appear to be its own experiences and states of mind rather than anyone else’s, takes on a succession of different guises and characters, becoming transformed, more alive, losing its diffidence, boosted by the strength of the sound. Finally, it reaches a peak, arriving at the point where it loses itself in an ecstatic fullness of sound.

The narrative does not lead us down a straight path. Its plot grows entangled, turns back and stops. As in the tale of Odysseus, mysterious, weird and fascinating episodes appear. Then there is a sudden halt, a literal pause for thought over the fascinating phenomenon expressed in the pianistic cadenza, after which – not without difficulty – the narrative returns, via imitation, to spinning out the thread that had been broken. First and foremost, however, we hear the music of the second theme; in other words, the equivalent or the image of the second person in the balladic tale. It sounds (in B flat major) piano e dolce, and so softly and gently – in the rhythm of a bucolic sicilienne.

And that strand will grow and bloom, reaching an ecstatic peak. For what follows, at the climactic point in the balladic narration, it is impossible to find the right words. This explosion of passion and emotion, expressed through swaying passages and chords steeped in harmonic content, is unparalleled. Here, Chopin seems to surpass even himself. This is expression to the ultimate power, without a hint of emphasis or pathos.

In the history of its reception, the F minor Ballade has inspired delight and admiration. It has been acknowledged as a supreme achievement in the ballade genre. Pedantic analysts have striven to hear in it ‘a masterly deformation of sonata form’ (G. Abraham) or ‘a sonata allegro without a development’ (V. Protopopov), yet for all those who have listened closely to the wondrous narrative of this ballade, who have allowed themselves to be swept away by its music, there is no doubt that what it has to say is not couched in such terms. For James Huneker, for example, it is a ballade that combines passionate lyricism with a mood of contemplation and reflection. Iwaszkiewicz compared the F minor Ballade’s mysterious, enigmatic character to the inscrutable, elliptical canvases of Caspar David Friedrich and felt that its message transcended the perfection of the music itself, transporting us into another dimension, another realm.

For anyone who listens intently to this music, it becomes clear that there is no question of any anecdote, be it original or borrowed from literature. The attempt made by the brilliant pianist Alfred Cortot to ‘fit’ the narrative of the F minor Ballade to Adam Mickiewicz’s ballade about three brothers (Trzech Budrysów), for example, can only be deemed utterly risible and glaringly inappropriate. The music of this Ballade imitates nothing, illustrates nothing. It expresses a world that is experienced and represents a world that is possible, ideal and imagined.

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


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Nelson Goerner

Ballade F minor Op. 52
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