Genres Genres


The ballades, elaborate one-section works, belong to the canon of piano literature, and are among the most beautiful and most innovative works in the Chopin oeuvre. It is in the ballades - as well as the scherzos and the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 - that the composer realised his own, Romantic conception of musical form and developed new means of expression that fully corresponded to the Romantic aesthetic.

In composing his four ballades, Chopin created a completely new, supremely Romantic musical genre-the instrumental, piano ballade. Before Chopin, there was the vocal (or vocal-instrumental) ballade, which flourished particularly during the Middle Ages (Machaut) and also in the Romantic era (Schubert).

In Chopin's time, the ballad was seen as an important genre in poetry (Goethe, Mickiewicz, Heine), distinguished by unusual themes, an air of mystery and fantasy, and a peculiar atmosphere. Chopin's ballades undoubtedly referred in their general concept to the great Romantic poetry, and especially to the ballads of Mickiewicz; they did not, however, possess any substance experienced by the composer or any literary programmes (although some commentators have been inclined to ascribe such programmes to them). A certain influence on Chopin may also have come from the Romantic vocal ballade.

The ballades (in the order they were composed):

Chopin's ballades combine, after the fashion of poetry (like grand piano poems), epic-dramatic with lyrical elements. They have a loose form, free from classical norms, individual and unique in each of the works. Common to all the ballades is the narrational character of the themes which open the works (occasionally preceded by an introduction) and a tendency towards the expressive transformation of the themes. A crucial role in most of the ballades is played by an expansive coda, as the culmination of both form and expression. There is also a noticeable influence from sonata form (thematic contrast and thematic working) and also variation technique.

In the G minor Ballade, Chopin creatively alludes to elements of traditional sonata form. The F major Ballade, dedicated to Robert Schumann, is based on the dramatic collision between two contrasting themes. In the sparkling, formally rather enigmatic, A flat major Ballade some observers have discerned echoes of Heine's ballad "Lorelei". The F minor Ballade displays a wealth of variation technique and a strongly marked tone of reflection, typical of the composer's late works.

Chopin is unquestionably the greatest master of the instrumental ballade. In this domain he had few imitators or continuators, among whom we might mention Ferenc Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Gabriela Fauré, Juliusz Zarębski, Edvard Grieg and Claude Debussy.

Artur Bielecki