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 stylized and often 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, melodies, and rhythmic and cadential formulas associated with Polish music 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.
Like the Mazurkas, Op. 64, the Mazurkas, Op. 68 is a collection of works Chopin did not publish during his lifetime, but the period of time they cover is much wider--nearly the entirety of Chopin's career. The first and third, in C major and F major, respectively, are from 1829. The second, in A minor, dates from 1827 and the fourth, in F minor (Chopin's last work), was composed in 1849. The four were published as a set in 1855 in Berlin.
In A minor, the second of the Op. 68 set is the earliest example of Chopin using the Lydian mode in one of his mazurkas. Chopin does this not only by using F sharps and G sharps to create cadences on A minor, but by raising D naturals (the fourth scale degree in A minor) to D sharps, as he does on the third beat of the first full measure. Also, Chopin emphasizes the D sharp, which appears four times in the repetitions of the first theme, with a trill and an accent. Thus, Chopin works into his first, four-measure phrase two important characteristics of the mazurka--a modal melody and an accent on the third beat of the 3/4 measure. The Lydian flavor continues into the beginning of the contrasting theme, which is very like the main theme but on C major and includes an F sharp (again, the raised fourth scale degree, but in C major).
All these sharps anticipate the key of the trio, which is set in A major. This section, too, has its share of D sharps, but they are used quite differently. The formal characteristics of this mazurka are straightforward, which is not a surprise since it is the only the eighteenth of Chopin's nearly 170 works. The first theme follows the expected pattern of repetition and a four-measure contrasting phrase is "rounded" by a full return of the first theme. The trio consists of a repeated eight-measure idea followed by a similar four-measure idea, also repeated. The piece ends abruptly with no coda.