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Polonaise: almost always, as soon as the word is uttered, it conjures up the name of Frédéric Chopin. And what could be more natural with a creative genius who was constantly attracted to the genre? His first work, published in Warsaw, was entitled ‘Polonaise for pianoforte dedicated to her Excellency the Countess Victoire Skarbek by Friderik Chopin, aged eight years’; and right up to the concluding Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61, fourteen other similar compositions had punctuated the all-too-brief career of the Polish maestro. Before Chopin, a number of musicians had devoted themselves to the polonaise since its appearance in the sixteenth century under the name of ‘Polish Dance’, before assuming that simply of ‘Polonaise’ (‘Polish’) in the following century. Gradually this dance in triple time had extended its influence to the whole of Europe. Undoubtedly some admirable polonaises had been written, but at the expense of the original essence of a proud, manly and noble dance. To Frédéric Chopin fell the honour of reviving that initial virility – of recreating the polonaise.
Franz Liszt had not been mistaken when, shortly after the premature death of his friend, he wrote: ‘His Polonaises... are among his most inspired creations; in no way do they remind us of those over-ornate, pretty-pretty pieces à la Pompadour... Their vigorous rhythm sets us quivering; it rouses us from our usual torpid indifference. The noblest sentiments of the Poland of old come to life in them. A sense of firm determination allied to gravity is what strikes us from the start. For the most part soldierly in spirit, they express gallantry and valour on a note of simplicity which typifies these qualities in a warrior nation. They exude a calm and thoughtful strength, and we feel we are back with those Poles of earlier days depicted in their chronicles.’
There could be no better commentary to introduce the Polonaise in A flat Op.53 (1843), one of Chopin’s most celebrated achievements whose usual nickname, the ‘Heroic’, sums up manly determination and fervour and a distinctly narrative character which has led some to detect in it an underlying programme. The ‘Military’ Polonaise in A major, Op.40 No.1 (1838), again paints a portrait of a valiant and combative people, an image which owes much to a rising melodic pattern and a verticality of composition issuing from vast and powerful chords. In complete contrast, the Polonaise in C minor, Op.40 No.2 (1839), is notable for its mood of distress. Is this not the bitterness and despondency of defeat at the close of day, seemingly born of the bass notes underlying the sombre chords from the right hand?
Four years before these two works of perfection Chopin had completed the two Polonaises Op.26. Created by a composer only twenty-five years old, they underline just how early in his career he had acquired a quite inimitable idiom. What vigour, indeed, in the first of these, in C sharp minor, which, if it does not make a clean break with the somewhat ornate manner of the polonaises of his even earlier youth (cf. Opus 71), already demonstrates an impressive authority. As for the second, the drama prefigured in the pianissimo of its opening bars is subsequently developed with an imagination expressed in sound which is astonishingly modern. The Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44 (1841) remains undoubtedly one of Chopin’s most enigmatic and disconcerting pieces. Its originality lies in its association of the polonaise with Chopin’s other favourite dance, the mazurka, and this association generates a strange atmosphere which Liszt, again, has wonderfully defined: ‘It is like the recounting of a dream in the first glimmering of a grey and misty winter dawn, a dream that follows a long, sleepless night, a dream-poem intermingling impression and reality which have no connection with one another, but which curiously coalesce.’
Published posthumously by Julien Fontana in 1871, the three Polonaises Op.71 – in D minor, B flat and F minor respectively – were written before their composer had finally left Poland. They are therefore the work of an adolescent who dazzled the aristocrats of Warsaw with his extraordinary talents. If here we are still far removed from the dramatic impact of the works which were to follow, we cannot fail to respond to the freshness and pianistic inventiveness of three compositions of great promise, made evident in a distinctive sense for contrast (No.1) or full-flavoured popular appeal (No.2).
As the orchestra plays an extremely limited and secondary role the Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante in E flat can be performed without detriment on the solo piano. This work, so rich in lyricism and sparkle, was written between 1830 and 1834 and crowns that period of stylistic brilliance begun before his departure from Poland. Imbued with all the insouciance of a young composer intent on winning over his public, this work derives its impact from the contrast between the peaceful atmosphere and half-toned cantabile of the Andante, and the triumphant high spirits of the polonaise which follows.
With the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op.61 (1846), Chopin made his last incursion into the world of the polonaise. The listener must not be put off by the evident multiformity of a masterpiece which is remarkable for the variety and complexity of the feelings and moods it expresses. The Polonaise-Fantaisie belongs among those works one gradually gets to grips with, constantly improving one’s appreciation of the inexhaustible wealth of poetry and the compositional audacities which, as with the fourth Ballade, place it among its author’s most visionary achievements.
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