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.

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