A Farewell Waltz

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.

He is remembered 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.

Mozart’s Requiem

Mozart’s memory is full of opposites. Known for both jumping on tables and meowing like a cat and for the mysterious inception of his final work, the Requiem, his work can be taken as both arrogant and irreverent or as profound and hauntingly beautiful. Yet, neither can portray the deepest essence of his being.


Born 1756 in Salzburg, a city in what’s now Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began his short but influential life. It’s well known that he was a clavier virtuoso by the age of six (with organ and violin skills as well). But he’s remembered more for his composition, which he also started when he was young.

He wrote his first minuets by age six, first symphony by nine, first oratorio by eleven, and first opera by twelve.

What a busy childhood!

In addition to all that work, he traveled widely with his father, who was also his teacher. Under his father’s tutelage, Mozart came to appreciate all forms of music in the west. This contributed to his wide range of composition, spanning keyboard, symphonic, and oratorio in his more than 600 works.

But one work stands apart from the rest.

In July of 1971, a mysterious masked stranger appeared to request the commission of a Requiem Mass of the young but sick Mozart. Later, it was discovered to be a messenger of the Count von Walsegg, who frequently commissioned pieces of famous composers and credited them to himself. In this case, he asked a master to write a Requiem Mass for his young, dead wife Anna.

Believing the request to be from a world beyond the physical, Mozart feverishly set to work on the Requiem and fixated upon it as if it were meant for his own memorial service. Indeed it became his death. Legend says that the night before his death, Mozart summoned his closest friends and family to his bedside to sing the completed portion of the Lacrymosa in order to bid them farewell.

On the Fifth of December, 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart departed from this world, and five days later, the completed portions of the Requiem were performed at his memorial service.

After asking colleagues of Mozart who all declined, Mozart’s widow Constanze hired Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil and dear friend, to complete the Requiem for the Count.  Luckily, Mozart had played through and discussed plans for the work with Süssmayr before his death, so the Requiem was arguably completed according to Mozart’s deepest wishes.

The most performed choral work in all of history, the Requiem is famous not for the mystery of its inception but for the eloquence and passion hidden within its score. It references Mozart’s heroes and builds upon them to create the new music for which he was so influential. In fact, the double fugue contains a subject used by Bach, Handel, and Haydn. And the work as a whole sounds like an extension of Handel’s work.

But the Recordare is pure Mozart, the work of a German composer who understood and loved the musical tradition of Italy and interpreted it in his own perfect way.

Grout and Palisca. From A History of Western Music, 4th Ed.

No matter the tradition, Mozart’s Requiem is a beautiful work that has influenced all forms of media. The Dies Irae provides the soundtrack for many a movie’s judgment scene, and the Lacrymosa finds its way into commercials that depict unfortunate circumstances.

The Requiem’s wide influence shows the pure side of Mozart’s music. It haunts many a musician, just as it haunted its composer.

Although Mozart was quite the jokester, he also struggled with the same things that make us all human. And from this came his music. So as we musicians continue to perform today, let us learn from Mozart and try to be as pure in our attempts as he was. But also not forget to enjoy the effort.

Meet the Composers: Tchaikovsky

Meet Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский for those who can read it). A flamboyant orchestral composer, he is best remembered for the range of his dynamics: the use of actual cannons in his 1812 Overture to his gentle The Nutcracker and heart wrenching Swan Lake.

Born in 1840 in a small town in Russia, Tchaikovsky grew up in the peak of Romanticism. He began piano at a young age and quickly proved his talent with the instrument. His parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg to give him a leg up. But, due to this separation and the death of his mother from cholera when he was 14, he suffered much emotional trauma that he carried for the rest of his life.

It is said that he wrote his first composition in memory of his mother: a waltz.

As he grew, he continued to practice music, but it wasn’t until he was much older that he or his father realized he had skill and love enough to be a professional composer or performer.

He went on to compose orchestral works, operas, and even ballets, and all of his works helped shape the music we know and love today.

Although many classical music students remember him as the guy who put cannons and hammers in his orchestral works, he also wrote touching works.

Swan Lake is based off the tale The Stolen Veil, a  tragic tale of love that can only be shared in death (no, you don’t get spoiler warnings if the story is centuries old!). The most memorable theme comes from when the Swan Queen Odette and Prince Siegfried meet, and Odette transforms from a swan into a woman.

It’s a haunting theme that begins and ends in melancholy. It grows from a minor melody into one more triumphant (as she transforms) and then sings again of her imprisonment.

It is of note that he also created an orchestral suite from some of the pieces in the ballet in order to “save this music from oblivion.” This may have been from the poor first reception of the work. Regardless, it’s one of the most beloved romantic works of all time.

Although one may argue that true artists remain separate from their work, perhaps Tchaikovsky shared similar feelings. Nonetheless, the story and the theme continue to permeate the media.


Further Reading

Tchaikovsky’s life

Wiki

Biography

Tchaikovsky Timeline Presentation

Swan Lake

Lumen Learning

All You Need to Know About Swan Lake

Swan Lake Suite

Other works

All Compositions

Meet the Composers: Palestrina

Meet Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Known as the “Prince of Music” he is responsible for hundreds of works that are known as “absolute perfection.” I love his music so much that he is a supporting character in a novel I wrote (not yet published; I’ll let you all know when it is).

Perhaps this is because he avoided chromaticism in his music, or it’s simply because of the natural beauty in his voice leading. Whatever the case, there’s so much to dig into in his music.

Sicut Cervus is one of about 250 motets Palestrina composed. I encountered this piece in high school, and many of my music friends say the same; thus, it makes a good introduction into the work and style of Palestrina.

The text is based on the first verse of Psalm 42, “Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.” Or, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Good ole KJV.

It’s curious that this version of the Latin uses the term “fountains of waters.” I know that some cultures view fountains as symbols of good fortune, so I’m curious if “fountain” is used in the original Hebrew, or if it was added in some translation. History buffs, please share if you know anything of this; I didn’t have enough time to dedicate to research this.

The way Palestrina sets this text is divine. It makes you want to just sit back and absorb the sound. Sicut Cervus uses imitative polyphony, which is kind of like a round. Think of when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with a large group of people. One subgroup starts, and when they get to “Merrily, merrily,” the next group starts at the beginning. The melody sounds good on top of itself and creates harmony internally. Imitative polyphony is also commonly used in the fugue.

The 16th century relied heavily on this style, but it is not the only style Palestrina used.

This imitative polyphony enhances the image of flowing water in Sicut Cervus. You can most easily see this in the last repetition of “ad fontes aquarum” particularly in the top two voices, as the moving parts of the melody trickle down from the soprano and into the alto, like water trickling from a fountain.

Sicut Cervus remains one of my favorite works of choral music of all time, and it will be for some time, no doubt. As we explore more of Palestrina’s works, we’ll dig more into technique and style, but for now, sit back and enjoy this recording.