The first CD of Series B, and the second of Polonaises in the National Edition phonographic cycle, contains ten so-called ‘Warsaw’ polonaises. They were written in Chopin’s youth. The other group of polonaises was composed in later periods and published during Chopin’s lifetime. Taken together, these works give a good cross-section of the composer’s entire oeuvre, from the Polonaise in B flat major (WN-National Edition 1), Chopin’s first preserved compositional attempt, to the Polonaise – Fantasy Op. 61, which crowned the last period of the composer’s career.
Chopin wrote his first polonaise at the age of six or seven. As a genre, the polonaise already had a history of over a century and its beginnings can be traced to an even more distant past.
Rooted in the folk chodzony (walking) dance, the polonaise developed towards the end of the seventeenth century as a social dance. It gained popularity in the mansions of the landed gentry and later in magnates’ palaces, where it most probably received its French-sounding name ‘polonaise’. Initially, it was used alongside the name polski (Polish), but with the passing of time it gained ground in the Polish language and was used even when the dance acquired the status of a patriotic symbol. From the eighteenth century onwards, the polonaise became very popular also in Western Europe, albeit undergoing a certain deformation in the process. In its many stylizations, which came from the hands of French and German composers, the rhythm of the Polish dance was tangibly simplified. Its characteristic cadential formula was diluted. It was also deprived of its characteristic elegance and vigour. The thematic catalogue compiled by Stefan Burhardt (1976) contains several hundred polonaises dating from the pre-Chopin period. They include highly interesting pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Wilhelm Friedemann, Telemann, Beethoven, Hummel and, primarily, Carl Maria Weber. All of them, however, are alien to the Polish polonaise tradition which was developed by such composers as Jan Stefani, Józef Damse, Józef Elsner, Karol Kurpiński, Józef Deszczyński, Feliks Ostrowski, Maria Szymanowska and Michal Kleofas Ogiński. It was Ogiński who gave the polonaise its stylized artistic form. In terms of compositional standards, however, his polonaises were inferior to the works by the most outstanding 18th-century composers. Despite this, they played an important role in Poland, gaining tremendous popularity and giving rise to a strand of compositions in the character and rhythm of a polonaise.
The seven-year-old Chopin joined this strand with the two polonaises written in 1817. The first one, in B flat major (WN-National Edition 1), was most probably dictated by Fryderyk to Józef Elsner, who wrote it down. The second one, in G minor (WN-National Edition 2), was Chopin’s first published piece (by Father J. J. Cybulski). It was dedicated to Wiktoria Skarbek and subsequently to Jan Białobłocki. In April 1821, Chopin composed his third polonaise, in A flat major (WN-National Edition 3), with a dedication to his teacher Wojciech Żywny.
All these pieces are the work of a child who took the simple pattern of a functional dance as his model. On the face of it, all their elements are conventional – the characteristic rhythmic motifs in both hands, the melodic formulas, the cadenzas and the overall structure based on the da capo dance pattern with a trio. This type of polonaises came from the hands of both Kurpiński and Ogiński. In fact, the Polonaise in B flat major betrays the traces of other composers’ styles. And yet, despite the use of conventional patterns and borrowings, the three polonaises are renowned for their simplicity and freshness and exhibit the harbingers of considerable talent, artistic sensitivity and even genius. Had they been written by Ogiński, they would have been included among his finest compositions. The inevitable comparison to Mozart favours the seven-year-old Chopin. As regards the range of textures and pianistic devices, Chopin, thanks to his extraordinary skills as a performer, surpassed Mozart when he himself was seven and perhaps even when he was slightly older. The spectacular arpeggio following the introduction and the ‘showy” crossing of the hands in the Polonaise in G minor and the ornamental passage rounding off the theme in the Polonaise in B flat are excellent examples.
The next group of six polonaises comes from the 1824-1830 period and shows the influences of two traditions, the sentimental one rooted in the music of M. K. Ogiński and M. Szymanowska, and the virtuoso one harking back to C. M. Weber and composers exploring the brillant style.
In comparison to the earlier polonaises, the harmonic language of the Polonaise in G sharp minor, written in 1824 (WN-National Edition 5), is more refined. The diversification of ornamentation and the use of high registers seem to indicate that Chopin had studied the compositions of Hummel and other representatives of style brillant. The work also has a new expressive flavour, substantially different from the somewhat superficial virtuosity of the Polonaise in A flat major, which was composed at the age of eleven. The pianistic devices and figuration are a vehicle for the composer’s lyrical emotions.
The Polonaise in B flat minor (WN-National Edition 10), composed in July 1826 and dedicated to Wilhelm Kolberg, marked another step in the development of Chopin’s original style. Except for the trio, which is based on a melody from Rossini’s opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), the work differs much from the previous ones. Chopin rejected spectacular virtuosity in favour of melodic writing, highlighting a gloomy and pompous, yet extremely romantic tone which is underlined by a new role assigned to the harmonic aspect. In bars 6 and 7, for instance, the notes of the upper part are repeated, with each of the twelve successive chords accompanying these notes being different. The density of chordal writing, however, does not stem from modulation but serves to bring out their aural quality. It is difficult to find a similar place in the music of contemporary composers. Indeed, this extraordinary passage in the youthful Polonaise in B flat minor is a harbinger of Chopin’s original harmonic language in his mature period.
The next examples of the genre are the Polonaise in D minor (WN-National Edition 11), written in 1825-1827, and the Polonaise in B flat major (WN-National Edition 15), composed in 1829. The works are erroneously marked as Op. 71 Nos 1&2 (see the text about the National Edition). They are renowned for the finesse and originality of their harmonic writing. This time, Chopin assigns to the harmony a colour-shaping role, employing dissonance within the framework of a simple, harmonic triad. These dissonances add colour to the textural sound in a variety of ways. The young Chopin demonstrated a highly refined, individual taste in this respect. Another new element which is evident in these two polonaises is the new status of the trio. It is no longer an insignificant episode placed as a contrast within the main framework of a piece, but one of the work’s climaxes with an important musical content, observable in the expanded trios of both polonaises in the quasi sonata transformation.
Piano polonaises were written in Chopin’s times by many composers, in Poland and other countries. No composer, however, be it in Poland or abroad, penned polonaises that equalled those by the 18-year-old Chopin as regards their artistic merit (originality of musical concepts, refined inventiveness, subtlety) and style, which in Chopin’s polonaises bear a highly individual stamp. The similarities with Chopin’s contemporaries are dwarfed when confronted with the unique features of Chopin’s texture, sound and expression. Gone are the simple fingering patterns such as the Alberti bass, still to be found in the music of Hummel and Weber. The ornaments taken over from the style brillant were equipped by Chopin with flexibility and elegance, unmatched by other composers, and became a natural component of the musical concept rather than merely an external attribute of demonstrating technical skills. The stylistic distinctiveness of Chopin’s polonaises also stems from their refined timbre achieved by means of both pianistic and harmonic devices, and the peculiar poetics in which these devices were grounded. This is particularly true of the Polonaise in D minor which, according to the Polish musicologist T. A. Zieliński, is the greatest masterpiece of the Warsaw period in Chopin’s career. Juxtaposed with the finesse of Chopin’s style, all the polonaises and dances of his contemporaries, including Weber, may appear as too simple and conventional.
The Polonaise in F minor (WN-National Edition 12; in other editions marked incorrectly as Op. 71 No. 3) was composed probably in 1829 and is dedicated to Miss Eliza Radziwiłł. It differs from the two previous polonaises in style, expression and structure. The rich ornamentation, typical of style brillant, was considerably reduced in favour of a greater expressive power. The work’s main theme, far from being regularly constructed but highly moving in its peculiar expression, develops in an unconventional way, with a continuously fluctuating tension achieved by an original pattern of motifs, musical phrases and rhythms, a multitude of emotional shades and an admirable, unexpectedly elegiac finale. The decidedly romantic flavour of the first section is weakened in the middle trio. It is simple in design and does not contain the development, which in the two earlier polonaises was assigned the trio an important role.
The Polonaise in G flat major (WN-National Edition 35) is the last of Chopin’s youthful polonaises. Written in November 1830, it was undoubtedly inspired by the outbreak of the November Uprising. Chopin’s first polonaise of dramatic and heroic features, it shows motivic and textural similarities to the three polonaises from later years, particularly the Polonaise in A major of Op. 40. The waving of emotion from dolce to con fuoco, moving from melancholy to sudden ‘outbursts of energy”, and the juxtaposing of contrasting shades of expression in the outer movements – all these features are extended into an over-expanded trio. The predominance of spontaneous and unsophisticated expressive features seems to indicate that the work was dictated by emotional rather than artistic motives.
The polonaise as a genre played an extraordinary role in Chopin’s oeuvre. Alongside the mazurka, it was assigned almost a priority role. Chopin composed polonaises throughout his life, guided by the spontaneous urge of an artist and some kind of inner compulsion. Like no other pieces, the polonaises allow listeners to trace the evolution of Chopin’s style and musical idiom. It is the polonaises, particularly the youthful ones, that reflect most faithfully and in the most subtle manner the maturing of Chopin’s personality and the development of his compositional technique and expressive devices.