The Polonaises

From the first, the polonaise was important in Chopin’s creative life. At the age of seven, he composed his first one, in B-flat major, and throughout his career he made the form exclusively his own, overshadowing the early examples by Oginski, Kurpinski, and Meyseder.

Chopin’s mature polonaises form a heroic national epic. The dance, or more rightly the processional, is in triple time with an unmistakable rhythm featuring an eighth note and two sixteenths, followed by four eighths. Liszt felt that “this dance is designed above all to draw attention to the men and to gain admiration for their beauty, their fine arts, their martial and courteous appearance.”

In these works, Chopin’s Romantic patriotism envisions Poland’s former greatness and chivalric deeds. The form also became a means of expressing his most violent and angry emotions concerning his nation’s struggle. The Polonaises, with their “cannon buried in flowers,” in Schumann’s words, have become symbolic and poignant evocations of an oppressed people.

There are sixteen polonaises, of which nine were composed before Chopin left Poland at twenty-one. These are charming, especially the Op. 71, No.3 in F minor. But only in Paris, idealizing his country from afar, could Chopin’s genius for the polonaise ripen. His seven mature examples are thrilling in their splendor, rancor, and pianistic invention.

Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No.1:
It opens with an arrestingly grand statement, but the main character of the work is lyric. Once played frequently, the C-sharp minor Polonaise ought to be revived. The Meno mosso section is exquisite, in Huneker’s words “tender enough to woo a princess.”

Polonaise in E-flat minor, Op. 26, No.2:
A tragic tone poem which requires depth of expression on the part of the pianist to fulfill its savage, brooding character. The E-flat minor Polonaise is sometimes called The Siberian Revolt. The discontent of the work, its wild anger, makes this neglected polonaise one of Chopin’s most realistic compositions.

Janacek must have loved this Slavonic masterpiece.

Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No.1:
Often called the Military; a world-famous piece, splendid in its pomp and glory, its chivalry and lean muscularity.

Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No.2:
Anton Rubinstein saw in this a gloomy picture of Poland’s downfall, just as the Polonaise in A major was a portrait of its former greatness. The C minor Polonaise is seldom played. It is an enigmatic yet noble composition.

Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44:
A raw and overwhelming work when played properly. Huneker asks us to “consider the musical weight of the work, the recklessly bold outpourings of a mind almost distraught!

There is no greater test for the poet-pianist.” Liszt called it the “lurid hour that precedes a hurricane,” while John Ogdon sees in it a “Goya-like intensity.” The central section is a mazurka preceded by two pages of the strangest monotony, reverberating madly. The psychological impact is shattering. This work finds Chopin’s spirit far from the elegant world of the Parisian salon.

Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53:
One of the world’s most famous pieces of music, it never fails to thrill. It is Chopin dreaming of an all-powerful Poland. The A-flat Polonaise is the very picture of the martial spirit. It has been called the Heroic Polonaise, and its majestic octave episode in E major resounds with the hooves of a proud cavalry. After “this central episode,” wrote Ogdon, “Chopin’s return to the main section is a tour de force: few composers would have dared and achieved so apparently wayward and capricious a return in so grandiose a work.” Huneker cautions, “None but the heroes of the keyboard may grasp its dense chordal masses, its fiery projectiles of tone.”

Polonaise- fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61:
This late work, published in 1846, ranks with the master’s most sublime creations. Chopin had said all he had to say in the form of the polonaise; he was now groping for a new, expansive, and more personal structure-hence the title Fantaisie. It took decades for it to be properly understood. Even Liszt was confused by it, saying, “Such pictures as these are of little value to art. They only serve to torture the soul, like all descriptions of extreme moments.” The weaving of five themes, the impressionist harmony, the total mystery and profundity present one of the most absorbing interpretive problems in the Chopin canon.

Selected Polonaises:

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • FRANKL: Turnabout
  • OHLSSON: Angel

Individual Polonaises of interest:

  • ARGERICH (Opp. 53 & 61): DG
  • AX (Op. 61): RCA
  • CHERKASSKY (Op. 53): Mercury
  • FLIER (Op. 26): Westminster
  • HOFMANN (Op. 26): International Piano Archives; (Op. 40, No.1): RCA
  • HOROWITZ (Opp. 53 & 61): CBS; (Op. 44): CBS (CD)
  • LHEVINNE (Op. 53): Dante (CD)
  • H. NEUHAUS (Op. 61): Russian Disc (CD)
  • PENNARIO (Op. 53): Angel
  • P. SERKIN (Op. 61): RCA