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.

How to Practice Like a Prodigy

Were you a child prodigy? Did you have to suffer through the same courses of practice and lessons as people obviously not as gifted as you? Then this post is for you!

Presenting How to Practice Like a Prodigy: A guide for those incredible geniuses who only ever excelled at their craft.

  • Play through your pieces from beginning to end. That’s it. Just do that. Us amateurs never do that. Ever.
  • Never, I repeat, never listen to a professional play your piece. Don’t listen to multiple recordings. You’re better than them, and your rendition will shed new light on classical composers’ true intentions.
  • Who needs scales and arpeggios? You mastered those in your sleep. And don’t get me started on Hanon
  • Forget about warm ups altogether. You need to be able to play your pieces cold, 100% of the time. You never know when a piano is just going to show up needing to be played.
  • Leave your phone on the music stand. That way, you’ll be prepared for emergency phone calls…or you know seeing when your crush likes your status about practicing…
  • Take lots of aesthetic photos for your blog. You’ve got to build your personal brand; the road to success is full of marketing! Bonus points for extra-complicated looking music.

#allthefilters #Ravel #howdopeopleevendothis
#pleasedonttakemeseriously

  • Finally, don’t listen to any criticism from your teachers, other musicians, or any of your favorite blogs regarding your practice methods. Only you know what’s best for you.

Fellow musicians, what are your tips for practicing like a prodigy? Please enlighten us by sharing in the comments below. Aesthetic photos of sheet music and/or your instruments are also highly encouraged!

Find the Magic

Close your eyes.

Take a breath and feel the world around you. In a dimly lit auditorium full of strangers and family, you sit in the warmest and brightest place. Seats creak, and someone coughs, but otherwise all is still.

The air on the stage is warm. It smells of rosin, cork grease, and floor polish. Just like home.

You sit with that monochromatic example of the beauty that can be born of the ugliness of industry. With its iron and steel wrapped a repurposed tree, it connects opposites only humanity knows.

With your hands in your lap and your back strong, breathe.

Look within, past the clammy film on your fingertips, past how your muscles don’t feel warm enough. Though the sweat on your skin argues otherwise. Go deeper. Go past the shaking of your limbs and the fluttering in your stomach. Let your breath guide you to your center.

There it is.

Lose yourself in the pool of magic within. That essence of who you are, that quiet voice inside, dreamily ebbs and flows against the edges of your subconscious. Sinking in it, remember who you are and gently guide it out toward reality. Lead one stream through your mind and through your heart. Weave it between your fingers and out through their tips.

You are ready.

Open your eyes, and feel the energy humming through you. One more breath, and off you go.

Out from within, out from your breath, you send the magic flying. Upon the keys it dances and flies, the instrument of opposites amplifying its effects. To every soul present, it glides until it finds a home within another heart.

Magic works best when it goes from one heart to another.

Ravel: Rigaudon from Le Tombeau de Couperin

You made it to the weekend!

I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces as a fun way to start the weekend. The “Rigaudon” from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of the pieces that made me fall in love with piano, and it’s just a fun piece to both listen to and play (hopefully I’ll have a good quality recording before too long).

Ravel began work on Le Tombeau de Couperin while he worked as a nurse’s aid in World War I.  Each movement in the work is dedicated to a friend that he lost during the war, thus allowing them to live on eternally through song.  The Rigaudon form stems from a lively, French folkdance that gained popularity in the court of Louis XIII. In the ballet, it was performed with a lot of running and a lot of leaping, which you may also do when you listen to Ravel’s version.

In the future, I’ll do a little essay on Couperin himself and his influence on later keyboard composers (especially Ravel!), but for now, it’s the weekend. Just enjoy this fun one!

And happy practicing!