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This text is for reference purpose only and may not be used in any way or modified without my permission or citation.


Although the term 'ballade' was associated with the French poetry in the 1400s, it was until the 19th century that it was no longer merely used by only poets to tell story. Chopin composed his four ballades during his mature stage after he left his homeland Poland. It is said that Chopin wrote music for the Lithuanian Ballads of the Polish Adam Mickiewicz. Even Schumann mistakenly commented that Chopin's ballades were as programmatic as Schumann's works. This is misleading since Chopin was never interested in music with titles, programs, or characters in the true sense like Schumann. Chopin even did not consider Schumann's Carnival Op.9 music at all. The narrative sequence in Chopin's ballades does not follow any specific format; it is embedded in many unpredictable and creative phrases throughout the music.

Chopin's ballades are pure music in their finest forms without any suggestive narration. Though Chopin was somewhat inspired by the stories of his native Poland and particularly the poems of Adam Mickiewicz, he wanted listeners to follow their own narration through his music. Therefore all analyses on the content of Chopin's ballades are merely suggestions. It is not necessary to know the poem or content to interpret these abstract works. All four ballades are large-scale works, which last from 8 to 12 minutes, in triple time, 6/4 or 6/8, and have poetry, dramatic and contrasting subjects. They all share these common features, but they are no less than individual works and should not be put in or performed as a group. Even Chopin did not intend to do so. He developed individual motives and combined them through innovative modulations for each ballade. In his ballades found many classical forms of sonata, rondo, variations in revised forms and daring flexibility. The ballades combine many traditional forms and creative expressions, but still in classical and academic standard.

The ballades are considered the finest of Chopin's creation and among the most representative of romantic music. Liszt, Brahms, among others, also composed the genre ballade after Chopin, but the musical term ballade is widely associated with Chopin and his ballades are among the most frequently played in concerts around the world. Many pianists found the poetic interpretation of these ballades a real challenge once they have mastered the technical difficulty.

Ballade [No. 1], G minor, Op. 23 (Polish), 1833

Composed within several years, finished in 1835, published in 1836, and dedicated to Baron Stockhausen, the first ballade showed Chopin's initial attempt in his formulation of the musical form. It is widely agreed that this ballade was inspired from Mickiewicz's "Conrad Wallenrod". The ballade opens with the strange Largo section in 4/4 and questionable chord D G Eb, which suggests some irresolvable issues that promote the coming first narrative subject in D minor. The first subject is a subtle and simple conversation and long enough to bust in to a stormy and agitated section. After the stormy octaves on the right hand, the 'diminuendo' running arpeggio leads to a silent moment where the C and F seem to look forward to a coming calm and bright scene. So simple yet beautiful is the second subject in Eb major where the 'bel canto' in Chopin shows its best. The question from the first subject arises again but now in A major, suggesting a bigger controversy that the reprise of the second subject replies in its first variation. This variation is more complicated and grandeur with octaves that lead to a mysterious conversation and dance in higher pitch. The modulation through triplets and octaves, followed by the climax in F sharp minor, is still evocative and questionable until the running down of music reinforced by a 'forte' bass Bb. This begins another variation of the second subject, in lower octave and it recalls the previous moments, yet somewhat regretful. The first subject comes again the last time back in its original D minor and leads to the ending coda. The fast and brilliant coda, partly in sonata form, captures all possible dynamic and dramatic elements in music and seems to resolve all questions with the running down of notes to the bottom 'forte' G. Two glissando passages however lead to the climax where the cascading octaves really conclude all the possible doubts and resolutions.

Ballade [No. 2], F major, Op. 38 (La gracieuse), 1839

The second ballade was composed in 1839 during the time Chopin spent with George Sand. Chopin dedicated it to Robert Schumann in return for Schumann's dedication of Kreisleriana Op. 16 to Chopin. The contrast between two subjects has never been shown clearly as in this ballade. It is said, albeit controversial, that this ballade was based on "The pilgrim", Mickiewicz's story of the invasion by warlike nomads and the struggle of young maidens under the form of water lilies. The organization is also clear: two contrasting subjects repeat twice and a coda concludes. The first subject in F major expresses a peaceful time with flowers and grass in the meadow. The music is subtle, elegant but not monotonic. The concluding modulation leads to a key change to A minor with repetitive A notes informing that peace has faded. There comes a sudden storm in the turbulent second subject. The falling and rising arpeggio passages repeat twice in different minor keys and gradually fade out with the a series of slowing phrases in the left hand. The first subject's motif reappears in major scale but it is somewhat less peaceful. Some doubts are raised and lead to the second tempest, which is much heavier and lasts longer than the first with the bold, cold double and single trills. The brilliant and dramatic coda develop through passages of double notes with two final interference of tornados. The storm ends suddenly and the subject reappears the last time, but now in A minor, suggesting that the calm atmosphere and optimism have finally returned, but in such a sad memory.

Ballade [No. 3], A flat major, Op. 47, 1841

The third ballade was composed during 1840-41 and dedicated to Mademoiselle Pauline de Noailles. According to Bourget and Schumann, this ballade was close to Mickiewicz's "Switez", a tragic narration of man's uncertainty and beautiful maiden's deception. Quite different from the first two ballades, this ballade opens with a very long introductory conversation before the main theme appears. This is the most resembling of a dance form among Chopin's ballades. The main theme is so elegant and charming that it recaptures joy and happiness every time it reappears. The second subject begins with the flowing of notes through A flat major and and E flat major, and goes through expressive modulations and trills, which is considered the most charming musical gem among the ballades. The reappearance of the main theme proposes a key change from A flat major to C sharp minor, which leads to an agitated and turbulent section. The theme becomes darker and the storm does not fade out completely; it becomes the background for the main theme to reappear for the last time. A series of rising octaves and chords, a variant from the introduction, leads to the climax of the ballade, and an abridged version of the second subject concludes the work in a triumphant, but still elegant as always, manner.

Ballade [No. 4], F minor, Op. 52, 1843

The fourth ballade is considered the greatest of the four and generally the epitome of of romantic music, which can be compared to 'Mona Lisa' in painting. It is not overstating to say so. This ballade captures almost all elements of musical ideas and human expressions with just the piano; it also summarizes Chopin's lifetime creative experience. It was composed around 1842-43 and dedicated to Madame la Baronne C. Nathaniel de Rothschild. Madame Rothschild invited Chopin to play in her Parisian estate to introduce him to the aristocrat and nobility. The ballade was said to be inspired from Mickiewicz's "Budri", a story of a father sending his sons to fight the enemy but ending up with three wedding feasts. Despite the overall key signature of F minor, the ballade opens with a major key that fades out for the main theme to appear. The main theme in F minor is so haunting and mysterious, yet a little bit sad, and it requires a great sense of rubato to interpret successfully. This Slavonic theme is slightly modified and repeated before a calming and serene octave section. The development section before leading to a silent point uses the same pattern as the main theme but in an opposite way, like an answer to the question proposed by the main theme. That question is still unanswered, as seen in the fading Gb repeating three times and turning to the main theme again. The main theme has for this third time more modification and expression, still elegant yet more powerful with the stormy and dramatic rising octaves that lead to the second subject in B flat major. This major key section seems to follow the motif of the second ballade where peace returns. The next modulation in A flat major is very delicate and it requires a good technique to master the double notes on the right hand and trills on the left hand. This long passage goes slowly and gives way for the return of the opening theme. The returning theme, in A major, slightly moves to the sad corresponding F sharp minor and quickly returns to the original bright key with a passage of grace notes. Then comes a wandering variation of the main theme in a strange tone, which suggests some doubts irresolvable and only relieved until the return of the common theme in F minor. The main theme appears again for this fourth time with many modification and at a faster pace, and so does the second subject, yet in D flat major, after. The recap of the two main subjects leads to a climax of arpeggios and successive chords that end suddenly. Calmness returns in the six 'pianissimo' mysterious chords modulated into C major, but just temporarily. The turbulent coda requires very high technical mastery of double notes. Is is said that this shattering section provokes a scene of horses running into the forest, which is featured in the climbing passages of double notes. The most fiery passage of rolling arpeggios concludes this most dramatic ballade with a 'triple forte' bass F and four massive ending chords.

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CHOPIN : THE POET OF THE PIANO - � by Anh Tran. All rights reserved
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