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‘A new Chopin Ballade has appeared’, noted Robert Schumann in his diary in October 1840. ‘It is dedicated to me’, he continued. ‘It gives me greater joy than if I’d received an order from some ruler’. He immediately reviewed it in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, including in his account a mention of Chopin’s stay in Leipzig four years previously. ‘I recollect very well that when Chopin played the ballade here, it ended in F major; now it closes in A minor.’ Besides this, ‘its impassioned episodes seem to have been inserted afterwards.’[i]

Here we have a problem. The account is too detailed to surmise that Schumann’s memory was faulty. There is much to suggest the existence of some earlier version of this work – a version that Chopin presented to Schumann and his inner circle during the second of their memorable encounters. Moreover, we know for certain that Chopin was working on the F major Ballade in Majorca. In January 1839, after a Pleyel piano had arrived from Paris, he informed Julian Fontana: ‘You’ll soon receive the Preludes and the Ballade’. And a couple of days later, when sending the manuscript of the Preludes: ‘In a couple of weeks, you’ll receive the Ballade, Polonaises [in A flat major and C minor] and Scherzo’. So the ultimate shape of the Ballade was conceived in Majorca. It was there, in the atmosphere of an abandoned monastery, surrounded by wondrous, wild nature, that the idea of contrasting the music of a soft and tuneful siciliana with the music of a demonic presto con fuoco – the music of those ‘impassioned episodes’, as Schumann called them – must have arisen.

The Leipzig encounter with Chopin and his Ballade must have made a powerful impression on Schumann. He recalled a conversation with the Ballade’s composer and the information he had heard from Chopin’s lips on the subject of sources and inspiration: ‘At that time he also mentioned that certain poems of Mickiewicz had suggested his ballade to him.’

And so at the origins of Chopin’s balladic tone, and the character of his balladic narration, stands Mickiewicz. That is something that Schumann did not make up; he heard it from Chopin himself. However, none of Mickiewicz’s ballads have been successfully conjugated – barring some rather suspicious procedures – with Chopin’s ballades, although the F major Ballade has been associated with both ‘Świteź’ and ‘Świtezianka’.

The situation is quite intriguing. Mickiewicz’s peers and his nearest and dearest passed down information on the way in which the poet improvised his verse. He did so, for instance, in the salon of Maria Szymanowska. The pianist sent him into a lyrical trance by playing one of his favourite melodies, such as ‘Laura i Filon’ [Laura and Philo]: ‘Już miesiąc zeszedł, psy się uśpiły / A coś tam klaszcze pod borem’ [The moon now has risen, the dogs are aslumber / And something there trills by the forest’. ‘Świtezianka’ has an identical rhythm: ‘Jakiż to chłopiec piękny i młody / Jakaż to obok dziewica’ [What a handsome young lad standeth there in the moonlight / What a maiden just there at his side].

The song about Laura and Philo is written in a 6/8 romance-ballad metre, and Mickiewicz’s ‘Świtezianka’ suggested to Maria Szymanowska an identical metre.

And it is a 6/8 metre that became constitutive for all four Chopin ballades (the first Ballade actually proceeds in 6/4, but that is a difference in notation and not of essence).

The narration of the Ballade begins with an idyllic theme in F major, telling the tale in a songful way, before passing into a minor-key area a moment later. But this is not the relative D minor, but rather A minor, ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’ in this context. And up to that point, the balladic narration oscillates between those two keys, which seem to come from two different tonal worlds. It is in A minor that the balladic counter-theme presto con fuoco bursts in, shattering the idyllic mood. The intertwining – or rather the colliding – of the two principal themes of the work (the ‘idyllic’ and the ‘demonic’) determines the course of the balladic action. But the theme of that idyllic siciliana is deformed or ‘transformed’ – a procedure that is characteristic of Chopin’s ballades. Quite unexpectedly, it waxes in strength and power. At the end, a deus ex machina enters with elemental power – a new force, a new theme… the final theme. But it is not that theme which ends the Ballade. In the very last bars, after the raging elements have abated, the siciliana motif is heard pianissimo, like a distant echo, as if from another world. And as Schumann noted, this resonance of the opening theme comes not in the original key (F major) but in that second, ‘foreign’ key – in A minor.

Chopin caused musicologists quite some difficulty in departing from the principles of his time and of his style, though this was not the first time – and not the last – that he did so. The Scherzo in B flat minor had already ended in D flat major; a few years hence, the F minor Fantasy would end in A flat major.

One intriguing suggestion is that we are dealing here with the ‘suspension’ of the narrative – deliberately not telling the tale to the end. But one may also opine that – in accordance with one of the main principles of the ballades – the characteristic two-key nature of the Ballade in F major / A minor reflects the coexistence of two balladic worlds: the real and the unreal.

It may seem rather odd or inappropriate, but someone once saw fit to put words to the Ballade in F major (its idyllic opening section, to be precise), composed, or rather completed, on Majorca. The person in question was Manuel de Falla, who set a Catalan text to Chopin’s ballade in his short choral cantata in tribute to the Polish composer, entitled Ballada de Mallorca. That cantata became the hymn of the Majorcan Chopin Festival, held in Palma and Valldemossa.

[i] Excerpts from review translated in Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, tr. Paul Rosenfeld, ed. Konrad Wolff (London, 1947), 143.

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


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Nelson Goerner

Ballade in F major, Op. 38
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