The Chopin Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69 No. 1, is one of his most remembered works. The piece contains both a compelling backstory and haunting musical content. This post provides a brief history of how this waltz came to be a marker of a depressing moment in Chopin’s life and then interpretive performance suggestions based upon brief analysis of the piece.
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 this Waltz in A♭ Major (“The Farewell Waltz”) is as intriguing as the man himself.
Chopin’s “Farewell Waltz”: A Brief History
Chopin was at one time engaged to marry a woman called Maria Wodzińska, pictured below.
It’s unclear whether her parents broke off the engagement due to his lack of wealth as a musician or because of his failing health, but the engagement was called off in 1835.
As part of his charm and perhaps to cope with the feelings the end of the engagement left Chopin with, Chopin supposedly wrote this waltz, also nicknamed the “Farewell Waltz” for Maria Wodzińska.
Analysis of the Chopin Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 69 No. 1
What Parts of a Piece Should You Look at When Analyzing for Interpretation?
When crafting your interpretation of a piece of music, there are a few standard musical features to pay attention to. Of course, the features of music go on and on, but some ones to get you started are form, phrasing, voicing, motivic development, harmony, and rhythm and meter. In this post, you’ll get to see some of the decisions you get to make as a performer and interpreter of Chopin’s Waltz in A♭ Major, Op. 69 No. 1, regarding form, phrasing, voicing, and harmony.
Once you address each of these features, you can then dig deeper into the features that make that particular piece interesting and distinct from all other music.
Form in the Farewell Waltz
In a nutshell, form refers to the configuration of sections in a piece of music. Are there huge sections of music spanning many phrases that repeat throughout the piece? Are there even clear sections?
Sometimes, composers or editors mark section boundaries in a piece’s score using double bar lines. Other times, sections can be delineated with first and second endings or even large repeats that move onto a part of the music that sounds different character-wise.
In Waltz in A♭ Major, Op. 69 No. 1, Chopin writes 3 distinct sections that all convey slightly different characteristics. One of these sections is more important than the rest and punctuates the large-scale form of the piece. For ease of discussion, you can refer to each section using an alphabet letter.
The First Section, A
The piece begins with a descending chromatic half-step, meaning the second note in the melody doesn’t belong in the key of A♭ major. Chopin frequently used chromaticism, so this isn’t unusual for him, but it certainly adds a sense of yearning to the piece already from the beginning. Without going into too much detail, you can characterize this A section that goes until a double bar at the end of m. 32 as wistful, slightly dejected, and possibly trying to make the best of a bad situation.
You might say this because the melody slowly descends across the course of each phrase. The first sub-phrase begins on E♭5 (at the top of the treble staff), and while it does go higher momentarily, it ultimately descends an entire octave to E♭4 at the end of m. 6. The second sub-phrase leaps back up, but it also ultimately descends as well.
The entire A section repeats with slight embellishments in the form of polyrhythms and octave adjustments in the bass line, but the section closes at the end of m. 32, where a cheerier section begins.
The Second Section, B
You can characterize this second section, B, as bouncy and more active because of the octave leaps up in every other measure and the dotted descending rhythm. Chopin (or the manuscript editors) marked this section as mf, which is louder than the p from the previous section.
You don’t have to go into a ton of detail to compare the character of the B section to that of the A section, but just note that part of the A section makes up the end of the B section, and then you repeat the entire section from mm. 33–64.
The Third Section, C
The final section, C, is notably different in character from the waltz as a whole. It still occurs in a triplet time, but the emphasis that would ordinarily mark a downbeat on every beat 1 in a measure shifts to beat 2. Chopin accomplished this effect with the accented inner notes that happen every other measure on the G and D♭ that occur on beat 2 of every other measure.
Chopin originally hailed from Poland before moving to France, where he spent the rest of his life, so it’s unsurprising that this figure with an accent on beat 2 of a triplet measure would occur in some of Chopin’s music.
The Mazurka is a Polish folk dance that emphasizes beat 2 of triplet measures, so it’s meaningful that Chopin included a reference to his heritage here. It could be that he intended this section to show Wodzińska that she held his heart as much as Poland did. There’s no hard evidence to prove that’s what’s happening in this section of the music, so that is something you get to choose as the performer.
The Form as a Whole
Since the C section also gives way to another A section, you can characterize this form into ABACA, which is loosely defined as the Rondo form.
The beauty (and fun) of the Rondo is seeing how each episode (or section that’s not A) develops the story or is simply different from the previous one and how it connects back to the rondo theme, A. Because each person hears and experiences music differently, each person will notice different similarities and differences, so it’s more helpful to move onto the other aspects of interpretation, but keep note of what you notice as you dig deeper into each section.
Broad Overview of Phrasing and Voicing in Waltz in A♭ Major, Op. 69 No. 1
Phrasing in music is related to the way we think about phrases when we speak to each other. We tend to breathe in certain places, get louder in some places, pause or fully stop in other places. Although you probably don’t pay much attention to where those moments occur in your native language, it’s an important expressive device that also communicates a lot of information (look into intonational phonology if this interests you!).
Music is not our native language. In fact, music’s not truly a “language,” despite many people claiming it to be “the universal language.” I’m sorry to tell you it’s not.
That means that you do have to learn where it makes sense to pause, breathe, stop, get louder or softer, and all of those other intonational patterns that communicate subconscious information to your listeners. But don’t get overwhelmed by all of that!
Although it’s an art, it is something you can pick up if you pay attention to the concepts of phrasing and voicing when you listen to great pianists play.
Just by listening, where do you think the phrases end and begin? How do you know? How do pianists (and other musicians) communicate this?
From listening, you probably noticed that most performers tend to slow down at the ends of phrases and even pause on or extend the last note in a phrase. It’s almost as if they start at a regular speed, get faster in the middle and rush forward toward the end of the phrase, and then slow down as they get to the end, so they don’t completely run past it. That’s how you can express phrases in your playing.
But how do you know where these phrases end, and what does that have to do with voicing?
Harmony, Melody, and Phrasing in the Farewell Waltz
Phrases in music are formed from a relationship of melody and harmony. Many analysts attribute structure (like phrasing or overall form, like the rondo) to the chord progressions alone, but the melody also plays a role.
Look at the first full phrase spanning mm. 1–16. Did you recognize this as the end of a phrase? Why?
One big clue that marks m. 16 as a phrase end is that the beginning of the entire piece repeats right after it. When you get disjunct repetition (when a repeat has a lot of music happening between both instances of it), it’s often a marker of a phrase boundary.
The other big thing to pay attention to in terms of phrasing is cadences. Cadences are points where the music finds a resting point. There are different classifications of cadences that can help you determined what types of phrases you’re dealing with, but in this case, I’ll just tell you that m. 16 is a perfect authentic cadence (PAC). A PAC is the strongest, most final-sounding cadence, so it marks big phrase endings.
Perfect Authentic Cadences occur when a root position tonic chord (A♭ major here) follows a root position dominant chord (E♭7 in this piece).
It’s usually the type of cadence to finish full pieces as well, which does occur in this piece.
The reason harmony is important to phrasing is because of these cadences: they’re classified by the harmonies that form them, and a PAC is the strongest type of cadence, meaning it conveys the greatest sense of stability. You would feel okay ending the piece right here if something happened during the performance (aside from the fact that you’d only played 16 measures).
Voicing in the Farewell Waltz
When you perform a piece of music that has a thicker texture, meaning there are a few or more notes occurring at the same time to form chords, you have the opportunity to decide which chord members should be heard more loudly or perceived as more important to the people listening.
There are so many decisions that go into voicing, but an example in the Waltz in A♭ Major, Op. 69 No. 1, would be the bass line in the first six measures.
Note that in this piece, the bass stave (the left hand, bass clef, whatever you’d like to call it) includes two layers of notes: ones with stems up and ones with stems down.
The editors of this edition used stem direction to show you, the performer, the separation of voices in the music. Voices in instrumental music refer to musical lines that occur within the same range and seem to create their own sort of melodies, even if they’re only serving a harmonic role (such as if they only play the tonic over and over, then a leading one, then the tonic again).
In this excerpt, you’ll see that the lowest note, which we typically call the bass, moves by half steps, chromatically. It goes from F to E ♮, to E♭, to D♭, to D♮, and back up to E♭. This is exceptionally smooth movement that contrasts the busier movement happening in the melody, so when it comes to voicing the left hand chords, my first instinct would be to emphasize the bass notes while ensuring they create one, fluid line. I play the bass notes legato.
The inner voices, which because they’re on the bass stave with stems up, we can both call tenor (but the upper of these two notes might also be called alto). These also move by step, chromatically. Although they are still important, I’m less tempted to emphasize either of these because they seem to be serving the role of filling out the chord more. They’re still important harmonically, but the bass line seems to also be serving a melodic purpose.
You get to make the voicing decision in these types of instances. Which do you think is more striking or should be more striking?
You also have the option of voicing this passage differently every time it returns. How do you think these chords should be voiced given the context of which section came before this?
Review of Interpretive Decisions and Where to Go From Here
From this article, you got to see how many decisions you get to make as a performer and interpreter of Chopin’s (and other composers’) work. Despite his pieces’ popularity over the ages, there are still so many ways your performance has great opportunity to maintain uniqueness and reflect what you want to express.
You learned a little bit about the Rondo form, phrasing, harmony and how it relates to phrasing through cadences, voicing and harmony, and some of the historical context surrounding the Farewell Waltz.
The next step for you is making your decisions. To do so, dig more into Rondo form, learn more about harmony, think about voicing, notice cadences. Even mark these in your score! Or have a separate score for analysis.
Just dig deep, stay curious, and learn as much as you can about each of the many features of music.
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.