Chopin’s Mazurkas

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Works writ­ten at the end of a com­poser’s life tend to at­tract a great deal of in­ter­est. Con­tem­plat­ing pieces such as Mozart’s Re­quiem Mass in D mi­nor, KV. 626, or Schu­bert’s Sch­wa­nenge­sang (“Swan Song”), D. 957, in­vites—in­deed de­mands—that we con­sider the cir­cum­stances un­der which these works were com­posed.

Such com­po­si­tions hold par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion be­cause of the ways in which they might re­flect upon or fore­shadow death, and they en­cour­age us to ex­am­ine and ques­tion the bound­aries be­tween a com­poser’s daily life and his or her mu­si­cal art. Per­haps most im­por­tantly, com­posers’ last works serve as re­minders of our own mor­tal­ity and the fleet­ing na­ture of our ex­is­tence.

When we con­sider the mu­sic of Fred­eric Chopin (1810-1849) in this light, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the fa­mous com­poser-pi­anist’s brief life of 39 years was plagued by nearly con­stant ill health. As early as age 28, Chopin was suf­fer­ing from symp­toms caused by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, com­plain­ing with macabre hu­mor to a friend that “Three doc­tors have vis­ited me ... The first said I was dead; the sec­ond said I was dy­ing, and the third said I was about to die.”

In the last years of his life, he com­posed fewer and fewer works as his health fur­ther de­clined. In the spring of 1849, the year of his death, the singer Pauline Viar­dot de­scribed Chopin’s con­di­tion: “His health is grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rat­ing; he has some bear­able days, when he is able to travel by car­riage, and oth­ers when he is spit­ting blood and has at­tacks of cough­ing that choke him. He does not go out in the even­ings. How­ever, he is still able to give a few lessons, and on good days can even be cheer­ful.”

It was in this sad con­di­tion that Chopin com­posed his last two works, both of them co­in­ci­den­tally mazurkas. He had cul­ti­vated this genre of styl­ized Pol­ish folk dance through­out his life, re­sult- ing in some 50 minia­ture master­pieces that show great range and di­ver­sity of ex­pres­sion. The fi­nal two mazurkas, in G mi­nor (Op. 67 No. 2) and F mi­nor (Op. 68 No. 4), demon­strate this.

The G mi­nor mazurka rep­re­sents Chopin at his sim­plest and most straight­for­ward. The mood is melan­choly, but the sad­ness is mit­i­gated by the typ­i­cal, lively mazurka rhythms and fre­quent shifts to ma­jor har­monies. It would be dif­fi­cult to pin­point this work as one of Chopin’s last based on the mu­sic alone, as it seems to harken back nos­tal­gi­cally to the style of his ear­li­est mazurkas, which seems to have been the com­poser’s in­ten­tion with this work.

The F mi­nor mazurka, how­ever, is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. The sin­gle-page man­u­script was found af­ter Chopin’s death and was so dif­fi­cult to read that the first pub­li­ca­tion of the work omit­ted the en­tire mid­dle sec­tion. Since that time var­i­ous re­con­struc­tions have been at­tempted—famed Chopin in­ter­preter Arthur Ru­bin­stein plays a re­con­struc­tion in his RCA record­ing of the com­plete mazurkas—so there is no one de­fin­i­tive ver­sion of this work.

When lis­ten­ing to this haunt­ing piece, one im­me­di­ately no­tices that it hardly sounds like a mazurka at all, but rather like the ghost of one. The open­ing sounds weak and ex­hausted, with none of the typ­i­cal mazurka vigor. One rea­son is there are no down­beats in the first 14 mea­sures, caus­ing the mu­sic to sound as if limp­ing, while the melody and ac com­pa­ny­ing chords are re­plete with de­scend­ing chro­matic lines, a well-es­tab­lished metaphor for death in mu­si­cal works since the Re­nais­sance.

Just as the mu­sic un­ex­pect­edly turns from F mi­nor to A ma­jor in a tor­tured mod­u­la­tion, the down­beat is fi­nally es­tab­lished and the piece be­gins to dance. How­ever, this poignant mo­ment lasts only a few sec­onds be­fore the mu­sic re­turns to the gloom of the orig­i­nal key. A more en­er­getic con­trast­ing sec­tion

It is dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to this mazurka know­ing the dire con­di­tion of Chopin’s health at the time it was com­posed and not as­cer­tain a direct con­nec­tion be­tween the two.

en­sues, but the specter of death proves un­escapable as the open­ing mu­sic soon re­turns to close the work.

It is dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to this mazurka know­ing the dire con­di­tion of Chopin’s health at the time it was com­posed and not as­cer­tain a direct con­nec­tion be­tween the two. One can­not help but feel a deep sym­pa­thy for Chopin, and by ex­ten­sion the suf­fer­ing of hu­man­ity, which can seem ran­dom and cruel. To­ward the end of his life, the com­poser wrote, “The world has some­how passed me by. Mean­while, what has be­come of my art? And where did I squan­der my heart?” Yet, de­spite Chopin’s re­grets, his mu­sic con­tin­ues to speak to us and to the hu­man con­di­tion, and for that we can be grate­ful. Pi­anist, in­struc­tor and mu­si­col­o­gist Erik En­twistle re­ceived an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in mu­sic from Dart­mouth Col­lege. He earned a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in pi­ano per­for­mance at Washington Univer­sity in St. Louis. He earned his doc­tor­ate in mu­si­col­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. He teaches on Sani­bel Is­land.

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