On this day, October 17th, in 1849, Frédéric François Chopin passed away in Paris.
“He had no predecessor and no successor…. Chopin came and departed like a comet from remote space,” said Australian pianist, Ernest Hutcheson.
History remembers Chopin as a morose and anxious man, one who composed a song to cope with his sorrows of believing his friends had all been lost to a storm. Yet, his contemporaries write of him being quite the jokester as well.
Many of Chopin’s waltzes are nicknamed these decorous names like “The Grand Waltz” or “The Minute Waltz,” but “The Farewell Waltz” is as intriguing as the man himself.
He wrote this waltz for Maria Wodzińska, to whom he was once engaged. When his health began to fail, however, her parents forced the two to break off the engagement. Chopin said his farewell to her through this waltz.
Most of Chopin’s works are held together by a single recurring melody. Sometimes the recurrences are masked within decorated accompaniment, sometimes the melody develops with each sounding, and sometimes it simply returns as it originally was.
In this waltz, it is the last of these. The piece can be broken into three major sections: A, B, and C. The A section contains the melodic binding:
The waltz begins with two iterations of this theme, with a slight alteration of the polyrhythmic run in the eleventh full measure of the melody.
The B section follows. Marked “con anima,” we might guess that this section refers to joyful memories.
It bounces along with a lovely registral accent in the right hand every other measure. Most interesting about this section in particular, however, is how the left hand accompaniment pops out of the texture during the second half of each measure. The accent on the weaker beat in the measure hearken to the Mazurka for which Chopin is most prominently known. The focus on the left hand here also characterizes much of Chopin’s style.
Charles Rosen, noted pianist and writer on music, attributes this to Chopin’s exposure to 16th-century counterpoint (through studies of J.S. Bach). Romantic composers and 16th-century counterpoint don’t always seem to fit together, so Rosen explains that Chopin’s version of counterpoint mimics the aural experience of listening to J.S. Bach. Certainly, many voices independently sound to create a cohesive whole, and one can listen to each individual voice through repeated listenings, but the experience of hearing Bach live is that of a prominent voice with the other voices fading into more of an accompaniment role. The voices take turns being the most important.
Such is it with Chopin. Rosen writes that Chopin does not achieve “the constant independence of the voices in classical counterpoint, but a latent independence of each voice, consistent and continuous, which could break into full independence at any moment.”1
This B section in particular exemplifies that idea in this Waltz. After the first iteration of the B section, the A them returns, and then a repeat of the two lead into the C section:
Again, we have an accent on a weak beat, this time on beat two, which references the Mazurka rhythm. Perhaps Chopin is remembering happy days with his formerly betrothed as he says his farewell. This section repeats without the A theme interfering and ends with a grand crescendo on a figure that emphasizes beat two even more.
And then this crying out of love or sadness falls back into the whimsical, yet somehow also melancholy A theme.
There is so much to unpack in all of his pieces, and I hope to do many more on this blog. The common thread running through them all is the use of a melodic thread to hold together each of his works. Listening to that thread interacting with the rest of the notes creates layers and expectation and is perhaps why Chopin is still so popular today.
1. Rosen, Charles. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.
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