Chopin’s fifty-seven mazurkas form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Soulful, witty, and often dramatic, they can be experienced in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s life; as his laboratory for compositional ideas; as a testimony to Polish culture and his elegant improvisation. Most of all, Chopin’s mazurkas represent memory. Sealed into each are childhood ghosts and bittersweet love, conflict and resignation.

Mazurkas are immediately captivating, to every kind of pianist. Most are very short, yet the rich detail of the music is extraordinary: Chopin rarely repeats a rhythm or harmony the same way. He often taught these mazurkas to his pupils to make them think about phrasing and tone production at a sophisticated level, which they found very challenging. (I recommend a lovely book – Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin, Pianist and Teacher, As Seen by his Pupils – for eyewitness accounts.)  All contemporary listeners were impressed by Chopin’s poetic imagination, noting he had a prodigious technique but chose to deploy it carefully and intelligently; he was interested in the quality of sound, particularly soft timbres. In a typically amusing passage Berlioz wrote: ‘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.’

There’s also a great deal of passion in the mazurkas; some of them are as demanding, physically and intellectually, as Chopin’s longer ballades or scherzos. Robert Schumann immediately grasped the embedded nationalism, characterising the Polish dance rhythms, modes and bagpipes as a rebuke to Russia: ‘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 ambiguity. One of the joys of studying this music is to have an excuse to lose oneself in great interpreters: Horowitz, Rosenthal, Friedman, Michelangeli, Argerich, Ferenczy and many others have delivered wondrous readings of these masterpieces. But for many, Rubinstein – who made the first ever complete mazurkas recording at Abbey Road London in 1938 – still stands alone. Listening to his deeply empathetic, impetuous playing is compelling: physical warmth collides with reflection and intimacy. It was this recording which established the mazurkas as an urgent body of work.

Chopin worked simultaneously with French, German and English publishers, so there are several lifetimes of work ahead to disentangle scholarship issues. Already there are six more mazurkas made available since Rubinstein’s first recording; now we’re all used to editions with posthumously published pieces at the back of the score. I’ve taken the simple decision to play them in order of composition, and to follow the intense unfolding of a composer returning to the same place again and again: from Chopin’s first mazurka to his last.

The Earliest Mazurkas (1820-1829)
KK IVa No.7 in D major ‘Mazurek’
KK IIa No.2 in G major ‘Prague’
KK IIa No.3 in B flat major
Op. 68 No.2 in A minor: Lento
Op. 68 No.1 in C major: Vivace
Op. 68 No.3 in F major: Allegro ma non troppo

A short curtain raiser of Chopin’s earliest mazurkas, written between the ages of ten (his first editor’s claim) and nineteen. They are delicious – cheeky and light – but also contain the building blocks of his mature work: chromaticism, a gift for melody, subtle shading, syncopation. Op.68 No.2 gives a hint of sultry melancholy, while the mysterious middle section of Op.68 No.3 lays out a Bartókian interest in folk music. Curiously this is the only instance of a possible match with a known folk song, Oj Magdalino.

Four Mazurkas Op. 6 (1830)
No.1 in F sharp minor
No.2 in C sharp minor
No.3 in E major: Vivace
No.4 in E flat minor: Presto ma non troppo

This first published set already speaks in a psychological, searching way, with a conversational, intimate voice. The lovely accents and open fifth harmonies opening No.3 are reminiscent of Bartók’s Rumanian dances, while No.4 (the only mazurka in E flat minor) is a wonderfully compressed, knotty little piece, a 24-bar labyrinth. Chopin returns to ‘circular’ composition several times in the mazurkas.

Five Mazurkas Op 7 (1830-31)
No.1 in B flat major: Vivace
No.2 in A minor: Vivo ma non troppo
No.3 in F minor
No.4 in A flat major: Presto ma non troppo
No.5 in C major: Vivo

Op.7 opens with one of the best known of all the mazurkas, with tipsy rhythms and downward leaps of 9ths and 7ths. Note the enigmatic folk-fiddle tune over a 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 mazurka in A minor – like Op.68 No.2, achingly melancholic – is a favourite amongst budding pianists; here I include two variants in bars 23 and 27, Chopin’s improvisations quickly scribbled down by a student. Just as Chopin likes to write certain material in A minor, his character of C major in No.5 is often rustic, and slightly giddy. It doesn’t actually have an ending, but loops round and round, senza fine.

KKIV No.1 in B flat major (1832)
Four Mazurkas Op 17 (1832-33)
No.1 in B flat major: Vivo e risoluto
No.2 in E minor: Lento ma non troppo
No.3 in A flat major: Legato assai
No.4 in A minor: Lento ma non troppo

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 Op.17 No.1, with its elegant nonchalance and corps de ballet middle section. Chopin’s mazurka in E minor (No.2) is a regretful Parisian chanson; this was one of the twelve mazurkas the opera singer Pauline Viardot arranged for voice and guitar, with the composer’s collaboration. The A flat mazurka reveals a composer who loves to improvise on his material, with beautifully Schubertian, enharmonic transitions. Mazurkas in this key often elicit a dream-like fluidity from Chopin, the repetition digging deep into memory.

When Horowitz returned to London in 1982, I slept outside the Royal Festival Hall to be sure of getting a ticket. Of all the pieces he played at his recital, the miraculous Op.17 No.4 is the most vivid memory. Chopin’s pupils nicknamed this mazurka das Trauergesicht – ‘the mourner’s face’ – and its porous, unresolved quality has inspired many later composers.

KKIVb No.3 in C major (1833)
KKIVb No.4 in A flat major ‘Szymanowska’ (1834)

These two mazurkas (not published until 1930) present two sharply contrasting styles: robustly merry and wistfully delicate, floating away on the breeze.

Four Mazurkas Op. 24 (1834-35)
No.1 in G minor: Lento
No.2 in C major: Allegro non troppo
No.3 in A flat major: Moderato
No.4 in B flat minor: Moderato

No.1 in G minor displays Cossack 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. The relaxed, improvisatory feel of No.3 leads into the darker ambiguity of the fourth 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 bleak voice at the end; similar to the ending of Op.30 No.4, and the recitative of Op.67 No.2.

Op.67 No.1 in G major: Vivace (1835)
Op.67 No.3 in C major: Allegretto  (1835)

Both written in 1835, but published posthumously. The first paints a village fair, with bagpipe fifths and stomping thirds; the C major mazurka is a reticent waltz.

Four Mazurkas, Op 30 (1836-37)
No.1 in C minor: Allegretto non tanto
No.2 in B minor: Vivace
No.3 in D flat major: Allegro non troppo
No.4 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Conversational, 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.

The third in D flat is a big-boned, generous mazurka – almost a polonaise – marked risoluto and con anima, for Chopin meaning ‘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 rules-shattering seventh chords – a sequence where the music literally seems to dissolve – towards the end. The final stark voice could have been written by Janáček.

Four Mazurkas Op.33 (1837-8)
No.1 in G sharp minor: Mesto
No.2 in D major: Vivace
No.3 in C major: Semplice
No.4 in 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 called this an epitaph of the mazurka, ‘the weary flight of an eagle.’) Chopin was furious with Meyerbeer, when he remarked Chopin stretched his rubato in this so much that it sounded in 4/4, rather than 3/4.

The set opens with a hint of tragedy in G sharp minor, and closes with one of the longest mazurkas, in B minor. Chopin taught this highly developed piece as if it were 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 in E minor: Andantino
No.2 in B major: Animato
No.3 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.4 in C sharp minor: Maestoso

One of the solemn 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, asymmetrical waltz in A flat which seems to wander off down the road, like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. The most famous Op.41 mazurka is a slow burn, of maestoso dance and revolutionary fervor. It ends with a call to arms (like another C sharp minor mazurka, Op.50 No.3) – Schumann’s canons buried in flowers.

KK IIb No.4 in A minor: Allegretto ‘Notre Temps’ (1839)
KK IIb No.5 in A minor ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ (1841)

Two more posthumous mazurkas. The first is another funeral march, resembling late Schubert, with an operatic chorus in the middle section. ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ is terrifyingly passionate – angry, even – with (unusually) an octave passage evoking Chopin’s great supporter, 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 in G major: Vivace
No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.3 in C sharp minor: Moderato

The mazurkas written in the final years of Chopin’s life become complex. The first two of this set are miniature sonata forms, although the material is clearly intended to be attractively light. Not so the remarkable C sharp minor mazurka, which weaves in Bach-like counterpoint and argument. The coda is one of Chopin’s most remarkable harmonic sequences, with a torrent of audacious chromaticism and insistent transformation, before the final hammer blows.

Three Mazurkas Op.56 (1843)
No.1 in B major: Allegro non tanto
No.2 in C major: Vivace
No.3 in C minor: Moderato

The first of these three mazurkas begins in a minor key: a beautifully ambiguous opening, before finding its way to the home key of B major. Containing two lighter, scherzo-like episodes, there are linking sequences that sound surprisingly contemporary, before an extended, relaxed coda in right-hand sixths. The middle mazurka returns to the awkwardness of C major. Chopin disliked this key, 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, far more elegant and relaxed. Here C major produces an earthy, modal peasant dance, with stamps and kicks.

Nothing could contrast more with the C minor mazurka, perhaps Chopin’s most philosophical. Questioning repetitions lead to a long bridge section, finally reaching a hymn-like second subject and development. This mazurka has the depth and range of a sonata movement; its closing passage is remarkable for the inner processes at work, both reflective and haunted.

Three Mazurkas Op.59 (1845)
No.1 in A minor: Moderato
No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.3 in F sharp minor: Vivace

The opening mazurka in this set is as elusive as Chopin’s Ballade no.4. It doesn’t develop so much as unfold; the composer’s harmonic handling – particularly a ‘false return’ in the very distant key of G sharp minor which effortlessly melts back into A minor – is miraculous. 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 a warm music-hall song, before returning to the stylish power of F sharp minor, with insouciant triplets and snaps.

Three Mazurkas Op.63 (1846)
No.1 in B major: Vivace
No.2 in F minor: Lento
No.3 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Chopin returns to shorter, simpler forms that are warm (B major) then frozen (F minor). The third mazurka is very different from the grand C sharp minor mazurkas that have gone before. This is klezmer music from Eastern Europe: ironic and wonderfully cultured, with a dash of counterpoint at the end.

The Final Mazurkas
Op.67 No.4 in A minor: Allegretto (1846)
Op.67 No.2 in G minor: Cantabile (1846)
Op.68 No.4 in F minor: Andantino (1849)

The last three mazurkas reveal Chopin at his most lean. No drama, but the poet speaks simply and directly; the harmonies have a devastating clarity.

The final brief mazurka in F minor was traditionally known as the last piece Chopin ever wrote. It was left as a sketch, assembled by his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, and subsequently edited by Julian Fontana. There is circularity and openness in the form; melodic ambiguity; and compressed, Tristan-like chromaticism. In its shadows, it sums up Chopin’s long journey: as a composer of extraordinary insight, his mazurkas a witness to human vulnerability and longing.

© Joanna MacGregor