Chopin: The Complete Mazurkas – ‘Canons buried in flowers’


Chopin’s fifty-eight Mazurkas, performed in their entirety today, form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Subtle, soulful, energetically witty, tragic and dramatic, they can be viewed in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s most private thoughts; his laboratory for trying out new ideas and techniques; a demonstration of his love and knowledge of Polish folk music; and as a way into his absolutely unique style of playing, which was less enamoured of the public gladiator image – made popular by brilliant artists like Paganini and Liszt – but more interested in the idea of the pianist as philosopher. Lastly, Chopin’s Mazurkas represent remembering: his family, his homeland and above all Polish culture.

For younger and older pianists, amateur and professional, the Mazurkas immediately captivate. Most are very short, and each provides a rich world of ideas and emotions. The level of detail is extraordinary – Chopin rarely repeats a phrase, rhythm or harmony the same way, and he often taught these mazurkas to his own pupils, to make them study pedalling, nuance and colour at a very sophisticated level, which they all wrote about, and found very difficult. (I recommend very highly indeed a lovely book – Chopin, Pianist and Teacher, As Seen by his Pupils, compiled by the Swiss musicologist Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger.)  About Chopin’s own playing there is a great deal of agreement: all contemporary critics and eyewitness accounts speak of his poetry, imagination and subtlety, noting that he had a prodigious technique but chose to deploy it carefully and intelligently; he was interested in the quality of sound, and particularly in soft sounds. In a typically amusing passage Berlioz writes: ‘There are unbelievable details in his Mazurkas; and he has found how to render them doubly interesting by playing them with the utmost degree of softness, piano in the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings, so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one’s ear to it as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.’

But there is also a great deal of drama and passion in the Mazurkas, and some of them are at least as demanding, both emotionally, physically and intellectually, as Chopin’s longer Ballades or Scherzos. Robert Schumann immediately grasped the political nature of Chopin’s mazurkas, with their fierce defence of Polish dance rhythms and unusual modal tunes as a repudiation of Russia’s recent annexation of Poland: ‘If the mighty autocrat of the north knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in the simple tunes of Chopin’s mazurkas,’ he wrote, ‘he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are canons buried in flowers.’ And pianists have been drawn inexorably to their mystery and ambiguity. One of the joys of studying this music is to have an excuse to lose yourself listening to great pianists: Vladimir Horowitz, Moritz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Martha Argerich, Dinu Lipatti and many others have delivered, both in recordings and onstage, wondrous interpretations of these masterpieces. But for me there’s one pianist who stands alone: the great Artur Rubinstein, who made the first ever complete recording of Chopin’s Mazurkas at Abbey Road, London in 1938. Listening to his soulful, imaginative, deeply empathetic playing of his fellow countryman’s music is both compelling and moving: and it was this recording which put the Mazurkas at the forefront of piano literature. He recorded them again in the 60s, and it’s interesting to compare the two; the first is fiery and passionate, the second (when Rubinstein was in old age) more measured and thoughtful. He complained that in the intervening years the number of amateur musicians who could play Chopin had declined: he could sense that audiences listened differently. I’m guessing that many of you here today will already know many of these mazurkas very well indeed, both as music lovers and players; hopefully you’ll discover some new ones to fall in love with.

Chopin worked with three different publishers – French, German and English – so there are several lifetimes of work still ahead to disentangle the scholarship issues around the mazurkas. Already there are seven more mazurkas available than when Rubinstein recorded back in 1938 – he recorded fifty-one –  and they have been published in a very odd order, with some of the earliest appearing – if they appear at all – at the back of an edition, and the last ones in the middle. I’ve taken the very simple decision, for this Festival complete performance, to play them in order of composition, and to take you on the journey from Chopin’s first mazurka – which his first editor dated 1820, when Chopin was a boy of ten – to his last.

The earliest mazurkas (1820-1829)

KK IVa no 7 D major Mazurek

KK IIa no 3 B flat major

KK IIa no 2 G major Prague

Op 68 no 2 A minor

Op 68 no 1 C major

Op 68 no 3 F major

A short curtainraiser of Chopin’s earliest mazurkas, which he wrote between the ages of ten and nineteen. All are delightful, cheeky and light, but also containing the essential building blocks he was going to develop in his more mature work – chromaticism, a gift for melody and subtle shading, and syncopated dance rhythms. Op 68 no 2 in A minor gives a hint of the sultry melancholy to come, while the mysterious middle section of the last in F major lays out his Bartókian interest in pure folk music.

Four Mazurkas Op 6 (1830)

No 1 F sharp minor

No 2 C sharp minor

No 3 E major

No 4 E flat minor

An absolute gear change: the first published set of mazurkas already display deep psychological content, and an intimately conversational and sophisticated style. The lovely accents and open fifth harmonies in no 3 are highly reminiscent of Bartók’s Rumanian dances, while no 4 (the only mazurka in E flat minor) is a wonderfully compressed, knotty little piece, only 24 bars long.

Five Mazurkas Op 7 (1830-31)

No 1 B flat major

No 2 A minor

No 3 F minor

No 4 A flat major

No 5 C major

This set opens with one of the best known of all the mazurkas, with its tipsy rhythm and extraordinary downward leaps of 9ths and 7ths. Note the folk-fiddle tune over a staccato drone bass in the middle. (This mazurka was so popular Chopin encored it twice at a concert in Glasgow in 1848, playing it completely differently the second time.)

The second in A minor, plangently melancholic, is also a favourite amongst budding pianists. The third, with its Mediterranean strumming guitar chords in the left hand, is one of the finest of the early mazurkas and was famously recorded by Michelangeli.

The last two are wittily joyful. The final one doesn’t actually have an ending, but is meant to go round and round, senza fine.

KKIV no 1 B flat major (1832)

Four Mazurkas Op 17 (1832-33)

No 1 B flat major

No 2 E minor

No 3 A flat major

No 4 A minor

The short, posthumous mazurka in B flat major which precedes the next set was published in 1909. It could almost be a sketch for the far more suave mazurka no 1, also in B flat, with its elegant nonchalance and corps de ballet middle section. Chopin’s only mazurka in E minor (no 2) is a true Parisian chanson, with all the nostalgia and regret of a contemporary love song. The A flat mazurka (A flat major is a tender, warm key for Chopin) really establishes a composer who loves to improvise on his material, with beautiful enharmonic – Schubertian  – transitions.

When Horowitz finally returned to London in 1981, at the age of 83, I slept outside the Royal Festival Hall to be sure of getting a ticket early the next morning. Of all the pieces he played at that recital, it’s the miraculous mazurka at the end of this set, in A minor, I remember, and it has haunted my dreams ever since. Chopin’s pupils nicknamed this most mysterious work The Mourner’s Face – das Trauergesicht.

KKIVb No 3 C major

KKIVb No 4 A flat major ‘Szymanowska’

These two mazurkas (both written in 1832 but not published until 1930) present two absolutely contrasting styles: robustly merry, and wistfully delicate, floating away on the breeze.

Four Mazurkas, Op 24 (1834-35)

No 1 G minor

No 2 C major

No 3 A flat major

No 4 B flat minor

Opening with another famous mazurka, no 1 in G minor displays exotic swagger. The highly original C major mazurka is a gossamer piece, with the fragment of a Lydian melody that pulls us back to Polish folk music (this one is often played by Martha Argerich as an encore). The relaxed, improvisatory feel of no 3 leads into the darker ambiguity of no 4 in B flat minor, an ambitious, almost symphonic work: the longest mazurka so far. No student was ever able to satisfy Chopin playing the soft unisons in the middle of this mazurka: they could never play delicately enough for him. ‘One was barely allowed to breathe over the keyboard, let alone touch it!’, one said. What a lonely, bleak voice at the end.

Op 67 No 1 G major

Op 67 No 3 C major

Both written in 1835 but published posthumously, G major brings out the rustic in Chopin – bagpipe fifths and stomping thirds. The C major mazurka is a famous, delicate waltz.

Four Mazurkas, Op 30 (1836-37)

No 1 C minor

No 2 B minor

No 3 D flat major

No 4 C sharp minor

Recitative-like, direct, full of pathos, beautifully brief: another chanson opens this set. No 2 in B minor is a clever, cunning piece. It has a terrific chromatic sequence, as well as a trio tune that repeats the same two-bar phrase eight times over different harmonies. Delicious.

The third in D flat is a big-boned, generous mazurka – almost a polonaise – marked risoluto and con anima, which Chopin means as ‘with heart’. The fourth is one of Chopin’s supreme works in the form, and recorded by many great pianists. There are many moods here – impressionistic, nervy, yearning, and passionate – and the work is complex, dark: difficult to capture. Music analysts from Schumann onwards have written about the remarkable descending seventh chords – where the music literally seems to melt – towards the end. The final stark, single voice could have been written by Janáček.

Four Mazurkas Op 33 (1837-8)

No 1 G sharp minor

No 2 D major

No 3 C major

No 4 B minor

‘Chopin’s forms seem to grow ever brighter and lighter’, wrote Schumann of the Op 33 set. That’s certainly true of the gorgeous peasant dance of no 2 – a depiction of the tavern, Chopin told his pupils – and the delicate beauty of no 3 (his pupil Lenz calls this an epitaph of the mazurka, ‘the weary flight of an eagle.’) Chopin was furious with the opera composer Mayerbeer when he accused Chopin of so stretching his rubato that this piece sounded as if he was playing it in 4/4 rather than 3/4.

The set opens, however, with a hint of tragedy, and closes with one of the longest mazurkas, in B minor: one of the few mazurkas Horowitz used to perform regularly on the concert stage. Chopin taught this highly developed piece as a Ballade; at the end a soft bell tolls, and the sudden arrival of heavy chords sweeps away the cohort of ghosts, he would say.

Four Mazurkas Op 41 (1838-9)

No 1 A minor

No 2 B major

No 3 A flat major

No 4 C sharp minor

One of the Funeral Marches that seem to crop up in the mazurkas – always in A minor – opens the set powerfully here. The mood is lightened by an ebullient, virile scherzo in B major, and a quirky, assymmetrical waltz in A flat, which seems to wander off down the road. The most famous of these mazurkas is, however, the last – in that most Chopinesque of keys, C sharp minor. An extraordinary essay of fierce dance and revolutionary passion, ending with what sounds like a call to arms.

KK IIb Nr 4 A minor ‘Notre Temps’

KK IIb Nr.5 A minor A son ami Emile Galliard

Composed 1839-1841, but not published until after Chopin’s death. The first is another Funeral March, sounding as if it comes straight out of a late Schubert sonata, with a gloriously tender and operatic melody in the middle section. A son ami Emile Galliard is simple but terrifyingly passionate – angry, even – with clear influences from Chopin’s friend and supporter, the great Franz Liszt.

Close friends, but with entirely different temperaments, Chopin confided to Liszt: ‘I’m not suited for concert-giving. I feel timid in presence of the public; their breath stifles me; their curious gaze paralyses me.’

Paris critics loved comparing the two composer/pianists. Balzac: ‘You should judge Liszt only once you have had the opportunity to hear Chopin. The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel.’ Lutèce: ‘Besides Liszt, all other pianists are eclipsed, with a single exception: Chopin, the Raphael of the piano.’

Three Mazurkas Op 50 (1841-42)

No 1 G major

No 2 A flat major

No 3 C sharp minor

The mazurkas written in the final years of Chopin’s life are complex and sophisticated. Even the first two of this set, in G major and A flat major, are miniature sonata-like forms, although the material is clearly intended to be attractively light. Not so the remarkable C sharp minor mazurka, which utilizes Bach-like counterpoint and waltz and mazurka rhythms to extraordinary and dramatic effect. The coda in particular is one of Chopin’s most remarkable harmonic sequences, its dense and audacious chromaticism a clear influence on Wagner.

Three Mazurkas Op 56 (1843)

No 1 B major

No 2 C major

No 3 C minor

The first of these three mazurkas sounds as if it’s in a minor key: it’s a beautifully ambiguous opening, before finding its way to the home key of B major. Containing two lighter, scherzo-like episodes, there are strange harmonic linking bars that sound starkly modern, before an extended, relaxed coda mainly in sixths for the right hand. The middle mazurka is in the awkward key of C major. Chopin disliked C major, complaining that it made a pianist’s hand fall unnaturally on the piano keys; the first scales and exercises he taught to his pupils were always in B major, which he thought was far more graceful and relaxed. And here C major produces a funny, earthy peasant dance, with stamps and kicks, and a great oom-pah accompaniment.

Nothing could contrast more with the final C minor mazurka, which some might consider Chopin’s most personal – philosophy in music. A haunting opening, with questioning repetitions, leads to a long bridge section finally reaching a hymn-like, chordal second subject (and this mazurka does have the depth and range – if not the length – of a sonata movement). Its closing pages are remarkable for the inner processes at work here, and reflective beauty.

Three Mazurkas Op 59 (1845)

No 1 A minor

No 2 A flat major

No 3 F sharp minor

The opening mazurka in this set is as elusive as Chopin’s poetic Fourth Ballade. It doesn’t develop so much as unfold, with mysterious harmonic twists and turns; the composer’s handling of the key changes – particularly a ‘false return’ in the very distant key of G sharp minor which miraculously melts into the home key of A minor – is astonishing. About Chopin’s mazurka-playing, Berlioz wrote: ‘….virtually nobody but Chopin himself can play his music and give it this unusual turn, this sense of the unexpected…his interpretation is shot through with a thousand nuances of  movement which he alone holds the secret.’

And then he gives us the very simple, direct, music hall song of the second mazurka, before returning to the stylish power of F sharp minor. Symphonic in scope and technically complicated, I first learnt this many years ago on the advice of Martha Argerich, when I was wondering which mazurkas to put together – she included it on her famous debut recording in the 60s.

Three Mazurkas Op 63 (1846)

No 1 B major

No 2 F minor

No 3 C sharp minor

After the epic quality of the last three sets, Chopin returns us to shorter, simpler forms that are, in the first two, warm (lovely B major) then cold (a frozen F minor). The third – famous – mazurka is the last in his favourite key, but it’s very different from the very grand C sharp minor mazurkas that have gone before; instead this is a folk song from Eastern Europe, sly, worldly and weary, with just a dash of counterpoint at the end: wonderfully cultured.

The Final Mazurkas

Op 67 no 4 A minor (1846)

Op 67 no 2 G minor (1846)

Op 68 no 4 F minor (1849)

The last three mazurkas show Chopin at his most lean. Both the A minor and G minor exemplify a simple right hand melody/left hand accompaniment style, which is direct, elegant and touching: no drama here. But the poet does speak, and speaks simply and directly.

The final mazurka, in F minor, is traditionally and mythically known as the last piece Chopin ever wrote. It was left as a sketch, found and assembled by his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, then subsequently edited by Julian Fontana as part of the Op 68 set. There is another section that musicians and scholars have attempted to decipher over the years – Chopin’s handwriting could be tiny, and extremely dense – with varying results. Today I’m playing you the simple, unadorned version – it’s very short, but truly marvellous. In its veiled, subtle way, it seems to sum up Chopin’s long journey: as a composer of mazurkas of extraordinary insight into the human condition.

Joanna MacGregor