COMPOSITIONS compositions


The second of the Op. 40 Polonaises, in C minor, is believed to have been composed in the dark atmosphere of the Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa. It would be difficult to find an alternative to the definition advanced by Ferdynand Hoesick, who wrote of the ‘gloomy mood’ that emanates from this music, of its melancholy and ‘tragic loftiness’.

In the opening theme – beat out in octaves in the bass (the first time sotto voce, but reiterated in a full, forbidding forte) Zdzisław Jachimecki heard an angrily ironic response to the obsequious Polonaise ‘Witaj królu’ [Hail, o King!] composed ten years earlier by Karol Kurpiński for the coronation of Tsar Nicholas as the so-called King of Poland. And Chopin’s theme does indeed constitute a dark, minor-mode reply to the theme of Kurpiński, who the following year – in an historical irony – would compose a rousing insurrectionary song: ‘Warszawianka’ [La Varsovienne].

Chopin’s passion and ‘anger’ are felt more powerfully still in the complementary theme. The trio shakes off the gloom. The melody (in A flat major) is led now by the top voice, softened, restrained and for a moment seemingly illumined by a distant recollection. But here, too, accents of menace or anger unexpectedly break through. To close: a reprise. So the opening theme returns. But how different it looks! Strengthened by a countermelody and played fortissimo, it sounds like a memento.

Of the two Op. 40 Polonaises, it is the first, in A major, that achieved celebrity and extraordinary popularity. It was apparently brought to the grand concert platform by Ferenc Liszt, who was exceedingly fond of playing it. The C minor Polonaise has remained in its shadow. The opus was dedicated – in an act of friendship and gratitude – to Julian Fontana. There is an extent letter, written in Marseilles by Chopin to his friend, from which we can infer that the dedicatee did not entirely approve of the C minor Polonaise. He did not like the middle section of the trio, and interestingly Chopin made corrections to the manuscript. Fontana must also have wondered at the work’s gloominess. ‘You have an answer to your honest and genuine letter’, wrote Chopin, ‘in the second Polonaise. It’s not my fault that I’m like that poisonous mushroom […] I know I’ve been of no use to anyone – but then I’ve been of precious little use to myself’.

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


The Real Chopin »

Kevin Kenner

Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40 No. 2 Op. 40 No. 2
Gallery »