Genres Genres


Fryderyk Chopin's polonaises are tightly linked to the national strand in his music. The most celebrated among them are difficult to understand without an awareness of Chopin's patriotic feelings and the tragic situation of Poland during his lifetime. He composed them from his childhood to his late years; altogether, he left eighteen works in the genre: sixteen piano polonaises, one for piano and orchestra and one for piano and cello [see Chamber music]. Their style changed over time, and their rank and importance grew gradually, evolving from conventional salon miniatures to expansive dance poems.

Yet all the Chopin polonaises, regardless of when they were written, are connected by the supreme idea of the polonaise-the most important Polish national dance. The polonaise developed in Poland long before Chopin's time, and since the Baroque era it had been a fashionable society dance at many European courts. The most eminent composers not infrequently wrote polonaises, including Bach, Telemann, Beethoven and Weber. In Poland, the polonaise ("Polish dance"), also known under other names, including "chodzony", "chmielowy" and "świeczkowy", was danced by the Polish gentry, townsfolk and populace. The polonaise in Polish music was given an artistic form by Michał Kleofas Ogiński (1765-1833), composer of the famous polonaise "Pożegnanie Ojczyzny" [Farewell to the homeland]. The young Chopin was also familiar with the polonaises of Maria Szymanowska, Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński, and imitated many of these homespun models as a child.

The basic features of an authentic polonaise are 3/4 time, a moderate tempo, a distinguished character and typical rhythmic formulas. From Ogiński's times onwards, the usual form of the artistic polonaise was a tripartite A B (trio) A. Chopin's earliest polonaises - in B flat major and in G minor - are the work of a seven-year-old boy, and in spite of their conventionality they are really quite charming, revealing the talent of this Polish wunderkind. In successive polonaises from his childhood and youth in Warsaw we note a gradual enrichment of pianistic and compositional means (the childhood Polonaise in A flat major from 1821, the polonaises in G sharp minor and B flat minor). Increasingly bold virtuosity appears in further youthful Warsaw polonaises from the years 1826-1828: in D minor, F minor and B flat major. These are already longer pieces, pianistically highly effective (in the "brilliant" style). These works, which were no more than testimony to the young composer's development, were not included by Chopin in the "official" strand of his oeuvre.

Chopin wrote his most splendid polonaises subsequent to his departure from Poland. They are seven in number:

There is also the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22 [see Works for piano and orchestra]

With the Polonaises, Op. 26 Chopin opened a new chapter in the history of the genre: henceforth he would abandon conventional stylisations and head in the direction of the "epic-dramatic poem" (Zieliński). Each of these seven mature works has its own distinctive shape, pianistic style and expression. The Polonaise in E flat minor from Op. 26 is already marked by strong dramatic elements. Relatively the most traditional are the two works from Op. 40: the A major displays features of the heroic polonaise, whilst the C minor is elegiac, even tragic in expression (both types refer to Ogiński). The last three polonaises are grand dance poems, far removed from the earlier conventions of genre and form. The F sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44 is close in its epic-dramatic gesture to the idea of the free Romantic fantasy "on a polonaise theme", and it is unusual in the appearance of a mazurka in its middle section, as a contrasting lyrical passage. The Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 brings back the grand pianistic panache and heroic tone; the stormy octaves in the middle section have evoked to the minds of commentators the image of attacking hussars. Chopin's final work in this genre, the late Polonaise-fantasy in A flat major, possesses the most complex form, the unravelling of which represents a true challenge to pianists and listeners alike.

Artur Bielecki