Mazurka No.38

Frédéric Chopin

Mazurka No.38 in F# minor

Op. 59/3, B. 157/3

About this work

The mazurka originated in the Polish province of Mazovia, near Warsaw. In the seventeenth century, the dance began to spread beyond the boundaries of Poland. Stylized mazurkas, such as Chopin's, combine aspects of this and several other dances, but some characteristics are consistently present: an accented third beat (occasionally the second) in a 3/4 measure; the use of both the natural and raised versions of some scale degrees, particularly the fourth; and a drone bass. During the 1830s and 1840s "art" music mazurkas were very popular in drawing rooms throughout Europe.

Some of the melodies of the mazurkas are unusual in comparison to the melodies of European "art" music. Many of these are related to folk mazurkas in their "modular" melodies consisting of tiny rhythmic and melodic units. Also, some use cross rhythms, chromatic scales, and modes typically not found in Western music. Often, we find remote keys used as colorful excursions from the tonic.

Most of Chopin's Mazurkas are in strict ternary form, some of them actually sporting a da capo to indicate the return to the first section. Chopin's later Mazurkas are more stylized and are in many cases the testing ground for some of his most experimental ideas. Unlike other Romantic-era manifestations of "folk" music, Chopin's Mazurkas contain no actual folk tunes. He uses typical rhythms associated with Polish music, fragments of Polish melodies and Polish rhythmic and cadential formulas and combines them in an original way. Chopin borrowed sounds he found outside European "art" music and used them to create music within that tradition. Some consider Chopin's mazurkas to be the most original of his works.

With the printing of the Mazurkas, Op. 50, Chopin established a pattern of publishing mazurkas in sets of three with a strong opening piece, a simpler second one and a substantial, grandly conceived third work, usually with a contrapuntal texture. The three mazurkas of Op. 59, in A minor, A flat major and F sharp minor, follow this same format. However, Chopin creates unity within this set of contrasting works through tonal connections. The Mazurkas, Op. 59, were published in Berlin in 1845, the year of their composition.

Chopin placed the most innovative and profound of the set last. The main theme, with its infectious triplet figure, is one of Chopin's melodies that seems to spin out endlessly. The trio, in F sharp major, presents new material but contains motivic references to the main theme, particularly the triplet figures. Chopin's foreshortening of the reprise prevents the reaffirmation of the main theme we expect from its return after the trio, suspending any sense of resolution until later and effectively destroying the piece's relationship to the conception of the traditional mazurka. Furthermore, the supporting chords that mark the 3/4 meter and support the main theme at the beginning are missing from the reprise. Instead, Chopin inserts as second, contrapuntal voice to create a canon, injecting a "learned" device into what should be the most reaffirming moment of the "folk" mazurka.

Chopin closes the piece, and the Op. 59 set, with what by now has become a typical gesture: a lengthy, weighty coda. The substance of this coda comes primarily from a striking chromatic segment and a close on F sharp major. Shortly after the coda begins, Chopin artfully shifts the melody to the left hand, maintaining a moving upper voice. Most impressive is the introduction of a new theme in the last measure, swelling and collapsing until the very end.