The Mazurkas

The sixty mazurkas are based on the dance’s three main forms: the mazur, oberek, and kujawiak. One-half of them are composed in major keys, the other half in minor, with many moments of modality. The Chopin mazurkas form one of the great libraries of ethnically inspired art music. They are difficult to interpret; besides their own specific rhythms, they require a fine sense of rubato. The English critic of Chopin’s day, Henry Chorley, wrote, “They lose half their meaning if played without a certain freedom and license, impossible to imitate, but irresistible if the player at all feels the music.” Liszt remarked that “to do justice to the mazurkas, one would have to harness a new pianist of the first rank toeach one of them.” These works explore a harmonic kingdom which is unusual even for Chopin. Some are modal, with many subtleties in contrapuntal treatment. Arthur Hedley observed, “The Mazurkas contain beauties which Chopin reserved for these intimate tone-poems alone. Every kind of light and shade, of gaiety, gloom, eloquence and passion is to be found in them.” In the epoch-making four mazurkas of Op.6, the twenty-year-old Chopin announces to the world his unique Slavic genius. Jean KIeczynski says, “In these first mazurkas at once appears that national life from which, as from an inexhaustible treasury, Chopin drew his inspirations.”

Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 6, No.1:
It begins with the triplet rhythm, a characteristic of the mazurka. It possesses a slight sadness in tonality but is filled with a sweet country bloom. “The third section,” wrote Huneker, “with the appoggiaturas, realizes a vivid vision of country couples dancing determinedly.” Chopin leaves the score without tempo marking. Already apparent in this first mazurka is a deep psychological content which becomes fused with the folk spirit to create an art of universal significance.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 6, No.2:
It opens in shrouded mystery with a drone bass; the trio, marked “gajo” (merrily), is a fine example of Chopin’s tonal ambiguity. It could be E major or in the Lydian mode. This mazurka is a masterpiece by one who had, as a child, assimilated the spiritual qualities of this Polish national dance. Jean Kleczynski speaks of “a song so sad, heartfelt, naive, diversified and caressing.”

Mazurka in E major, Op. 6, No.3:
This mazurka is ninety measures long, but as usual Chopin is prodigal with his material. After a four-measure drone bass, there follows a four-measure phrase in the bass with the right hand crossing over the left hand. This is used four times in the piece. Chopin goes on to paint a village scene in an upward-moving theme which outlines the key of E major. After two more themes there appears in measures 47-48 an exotic unison, marked stretto, leading to yet another theme. The rustic theme is repeated, and all ends merrily in a four-measure coda.

Mazurka in E-flat minor, Op. 6, No.4:
In twenty-four highly compressed measures, with measures 9-24 repeated, the mazurka is laden with sorrow. The ending floats away.

Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 7, No. 1:
A scherzando theme proclaims the happiest mazurka thus far-a village dance for rosy-cheeked partners. The trio, marked sotto voce, has a drone bass using an exotic scale with an augmented second. The Op. 7, No.1 is one of the best known of all the mazurkas.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 7, No.2:
A pretty mazurka, though less original than the preceding ones.

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7, No.3:
Guitarlike chords accompany this masterful work. At one point, the left hand presents a solo which sings from the heart, with the right hand accompanying in simple chords. One of the finest of the early mazurkas.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 7, No.4:
Far more complex than it seems on first hearing, this mazurka is harmonically interesting, while lacking the melodic fragrance of the preceding one.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 7, No.5:
Twenty measures long, as if a strain of a folk mazurka from Chopin’s childhood had crept into his consciousness. It has a carefree happiness with lusty overtones.

Mazurka in B-flat major, Op. 17, No.1:
Huneker calls the mazurka “bold and chivalric.” Niecks also finds here “the marked chivalrous element that distinguishes the Polish character.”

Mazurka in E minor, Op. 17, No.2:
Niecks thinks that in this mazurka “all the arts of persuasion are tried, from the pathetic to the playful, and a vein of longing, not unmixed with sadness, runs through the whole, or rather forms the basis of it.”

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 17, No.3:
Pessimistic but not gloomy, this inward-looking composition is one to be played in solitude, rather than on the recital stage.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No.4:
This long, languid mazurka opens as it ends, with chords in the left hand for three measures, pursuing a vague triplet in measure four. In shaping his mazurka theme, Chopin uses more aristocratic and decorative figuration than usual. But the trio is earthier, with an almost grating quality; a marvelous unison passage leads back to the main theme.

Mazurka in G minor, Op. 24, No.1:
An attractive and exotic piece, of little technical difficulty.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No.2:
Highly original, with its exotic use of the Lydian mode for fifteen bars.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 24, No.3:
A work of delicate charm with a coda that seems to die away in the breeze.

Mazurka in B-flat minor, Op. 24, No.4:
The finest and most elaborate of the Op. 24. Huneker calls it “a beautiful and exquisitely colored poem. . . . It sends out prehensile filaments that entwine and draw us into the centre of a wondrous melody, laden with rich odors, odors that almost intoxicate. The figuration is tropical.” A complicated work; its form is A B A C D A with coda.

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 30, No.1:
A beautiful specimen, short in time, long in emotional significance. The “con anima” section “stabs with its pathos,” in Huneker’s phrase.

Mazurka in B minor, Op. 30, No.2 2:
A sprightly mazurka of less importance.

Mazurka in D-flat major, Op. 30, No.3:
Has a characteristic lilt, with marvelous details. Another fine “con anima” section. The term as used by Chopin means “with heart.”

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No.4:
One of Chopin’s supreme works in the form. Paul Hamburger speaks of “the tragic heroism of this Mazurka.” Often noted are the extraordinary descending seventh chords before the ending. Schumann, who first reviewed the set when it was published in 1835, wrote, “Chopin has elevated the mazurka to an art form; he has written many, yet few among them resemble each other.” One is reminded of Shelley’s line, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

Mazurka in G-sharp minor, Op. 33, No.1:
A plaintive mazurka, less complex than many of the others. One of its themes is marked “appassionato,” the only use of that marking in all of the mazurkas.

Mazurka in D major, Op. 33, No.2:
A delightful specimen; bright, cheerful, and popular.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 33, No.3:
A heartfelt little piece demanding that unique Chopinesque rubato, which was so new, fragrant, and wayward in Chopin’s own playing. Chopin was furious with Meyerbeer when the opera composer accused him of playing this piece in 4/4 instead of 3/4 time.

Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No.4:
Among the longest of the mazurkas, it was once a popular favorite. In dull hands the work can sound repetitious, as the first theme returns eight times. Schumann wrote of the Op. 33 set that Chopin’s “forms seem to grow ever brighter and lighter.”

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 41, No.1:
Of the four mazurkas contained in Op. 41, the thirty-year-old Chopin wrote to the pianist Julius Fontana, “I have four new mazurkas. They seem to me pretty, as the youngest children usually do when the parents grow old.” However, pretty is hardly the word for these four minutes with their depth, complexity, and passion. This is one of the great mazurkas, universal in its impact but Polish to the core, despite Schumann’s complaint that in the later mazurkas Chopin was losing his Sarmatian skin. This mazurka is symphonic in scope and breadth. Huneker declares that “here is the very apotheosis of rhythm.”

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 41, No.2:
There is an almost unbearable nostalgia in this mazurka, which rises to an outcry near the end, when the theme becomes fortissimo and sostenuto.

Mazurka in B major, Op. 41, No.3:
A fascinating dance, seldom played, ending with the same piquant melody that introduced it.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 41, No. 4:
Filled with light, goodwill, and the radiance of youth. There is an almost valselike lilt.

Mazurka in G major, Op. 50, No.1:
The set of three mazurkas of Op. 50, composed in 1841, shows an ever-growing subtlety of style, both harmonically and structurally. No. 1 in particular is melodious and good-humored.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 50, No.2:
Here is the embodiment of graciousness. Huneker calls it “a perfect specimen of the aristocratic mazurka.” The D-flat trio is fetching.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No.3:
One of Chopin’s great essays in the form. Hamburger sees in the mazurkas in C-sharp minor (Op. 30, No.4; Op. 41, No.1; and Op. 50, No.3) “a common mood of nostalgia–more than that, of almost regal bitterness over the passing of Poland’s glory.” Henry T. Finck wrote, “His love for his country was exceeded only by his devotion to his art.” Chopin, writing to a friend, remarked, “Oh, how sad it must be to die in a foreign country.” In this mazurka, Romantic patriotism is wedded to high art. Chopin’s study of Bach is also finely integrated in a complicated structure ending with a wondrous coda.

Mazurka in B major, Op. 56, No.1:
Critics such as Niecks, Huneker, and others were less attracted to the later mazurkas, which have since come to be understood as among Chopin’s greatest works. For Niecks, these pieces had lost the beautes sauvages: “They strike us rather by their propriety of manner and scholarly elaboration.” The B major work, writes James Friskin, is “interesting for its succession of keys:B-E-flat (i.e., D-sharp, the mediant)- B-G (sub-mediant)-B.” The mazurka is elaborate and refined, with the E-flat section a chain of finely spun leggiero passagework.

Mazurka in C major, Op. 56, No.2:
Thomas Fielden wrote, “Performers should bear in mind the saying that ‘an Eastern European is born with a violin in his hand.’ In every Mazurka there is a violin atmosphere.” Fielden feels “this Mazurka is in the form of a dialogue between a violin and a cello.” Chopin here displays his ever-growing contrapuntal imagination.

Mazurka in C minor, Op. 56, No.3:
Huneker thinks “it is composed with the head, not the heart, nor yet the heels.” The very long C minor Mazurka is symphonic in breadth, serious, beautiful, mature; its coda is glorious. Here Chopin brings the form to its most elevated state.

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No.1:
A long work of astounding genius; the greatest of the six mazurkas in A minor. It reminded Huneker of “some strange glade wherein the flowers are rare in scent.” The chromaticism is dense, with considerable contrapuntal activity. The trio in A major is complex. There follows the mazurka’s main theme, heard in G-sharp minor.

Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 59. No.2:
Sir William Henry Hadow goes so far as to call this “perhaps the most beautiful of all the mazurkas.” Friskin calls attention to “an astonishing passage of chromatic harmony leading to a delightful coda.”

Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No.3:
A pungent work. Huneker feels that “Chopin is at the summit of his invention. Time and tune, that wait for no man, are now his bond slaves. Pathos, delicacy, boldness, a measured melancholy and the art of euphonious presentment of all these, and many factors more, stamp this mazurka a masterpiece.”

Mazurka in B major, Op. 63, No.1:
The last set of Chopin’s mazurkas, Op. 63, was published in 1847, and for all the hidden complexity, there is a return to the earlier feeling of charming simplicity so apparent in the mazurkas of his youth. The B major work is vivacious, with a fascinating contour.

Mazurka in F minor, Op. 63, No.2:
Two pages of music of a lingering sadness.

Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63, No.3:
By far the best known of this group. It possesses an eloquent lyricism and concludes with a display of Chopin’s contrapuntal skill. “A more perfect canon at the octave,” wrote Louis Ehlert, “could not have been written by one who has grown grey in the learned art.” but Huneker slyly observes that “Chopin wears his learning lightly.”

There remain the posthumous mazurkas, written in various years; four are gathered in Op. 67, the best being No.4 in A minor. Exotic in coloration, it is often played. Op. 68 contains four mazurkas; the last, in F minor, from 1849, is Chopin’s last work. It is subdued, morbid, and intensely chromatic. Finck calls it of “heartrending sadness and exquisite pathos.” The desperate composer, near death, hardly had the strength to write it out. Also of interest is the seldom played Mazurka in A minor from 1841. The A major section is all in octaves, and the piece ends with a ten-measure trill.

  • BRAILOWSKY (51 mazurkas): CBS
  • FRIEDMAN (12): Pearl (CD)
  • HOROWITZ (6): CBS (CD)
  • KAPELL (18): International Piano Archives at Maryland (IPA is housed at the University of Maryland)
  • KAPELL (10): RCA (CD)
  • MAGALOFF(51): London
  • MALCUZYNSKI (13): Angel
  • NOVAES (9): Vox