Recorded on 05/27/2009, uploaded on 08/05/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Chopin’s final ballade, composed in 1842, is the greatest of the four he wrote for piano. It’s intricately structured sonata form shows the composer at the height of his powers. Indeed, it is certainly one of the finest examples of tremendous depth and breadth of which the form is capable. Like the other ballades, the Ballade No. 4 is said to be inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz—specifically, a poem by the title of The Three Budrys in which three brothers are sent by their father to seek treasure, but instead return with three Polish wives. A true Romantic, Chopin well understood that music is too abstract in and of itself to adequately portray specific imagery or characters. (He even sharply criticized Robert Schumann’s Carnaval on this point by stating that it wasn’t even music.) If Mickiewicz’s poetry was a direct inspiration on the ballade, at best, it, as well as any of the other ballades, is Chopin’s personal emotional reaction to the respective poem. The poem’s inherent narrative is lost in translation through the musical medium, leaving the listener, fueled by his own imagination, to formulate a personal narrative.
Though in the key of F minor, the Ballade begins with a brief introduction upon a prolonged dominant harmony, adequately setting the stage for the ensuing drama. The first theme, beginning decidedly in the tonic key, but often wavering between it and the key of A-flat major, has a Slavonic feel and tinges of sadness throughout. Unlike many sonata forms, the first thematic section here is exceptionally long, occupying an incredibly disproportionate part of the exposition. However, what could have been a potential structural flaw is offset masterfully by Chopin’s constant varying of the theme. By its final statement, it is accompanied by a restless counterpoint of sixteenth notes, which build in energy and lead the transition to the second theme. This secondary theme adopts as its center the key of B-flat major, instead of the more usual relative major or even the key of the dominant. Lyrical and sublime, the theme is almost entirely set in a homophonic texture. However, this peaceful scene is short-lived and the development section begins with the restlessness found in the earlier transition. Comparatively, the development section is rather short, but nevertheless contains within it a great amount of music. Here, more than any of the other ballades, Chopin indulges his contrapuntal skill. Amidst the interweaving lines, the idyllic melody of the introduction sounds through like a clear bell and signals the end of the development section proper. However, the development of the ballade’s two themes continues well in the recapitulation. Following a more or less verbatim reprise of the first theme, Chopin interjects a delicate and highly ornamental variation of the theme. The prominent triplet rhythm of this variation then subsides into the accompaniment figure of the second theme’s reprise. Once again, the serene second theme is fleeting and an agitated restlessness returns to begin the coda. Drawing upon the triplet rhythms of the first theme’s reprise, tension relentlessly builds through to the final bars. Even a momentary, quiet chordal passage seems to somehow only push the music onward. In a last surge, with the indication to quicken the pace through to the end, arpeggios climb up into the high range of the instrument only to fall furiously back down into the final, conclusive chords. Joseph DuBose
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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