About this work
The polonaise is a couple dance in moderate triple meter that originated in Poland. During the early Baroque era, pieces called Polish dances or (in French) "polonaises" were written by numerous composers. By the eighteenth century, the polonaise became an instrumental work independent of its dance origins, and exhibited the following characteristics: triple meter, moderate tempo, lack of upbeats, and repetition of rhythmic figures. In the Classical era, polonaises came to possess broader, more expressive melodies and sometimes included a trio section (as in a minuet) or were set in rondo form.
By the time Chopin composed his first polonaises, then, the dance had been known throughout Europe for two centuries and had taken on a conventional character. Even Chopin's first essays in the genre were not especially Polish in style or reference. Probably because of Chopin's later separation from his homeland, his expansive and majestic mature polonaises would become symbols of Polish nationalism for both the composer and, especially, other Poles. The works were received as defiant outbursts in the struggle of an oppressed and partitioned nation. Some were associated with specific historical events: Op. 40, No. 1 was perceived as evoking the battle of the Hussards of Subieski and Op. 44, the battle of Grochów. In 1840, the Polonaise in A major was coupled with the Polonaise in C minor (composed in 1839), and the pair was published in Paris as Op. 40. Chopin dedicated the pieces to Julian Fontana, one of the composer's Warsaw friends.
Among Chopin's mature polonaises, this A major piece is the most "traditional," preserving the melodic and rhythmic aspects, as well as the da capo format, of the older dances. Nevertheless, Chopin infuses the piece with the strength and heroism we find in other polonaises. From the very beginning of the piece, Chopin's writing for the keyboard is so powerful that the overall sonority is nearly orchestral in effect. This is evident in the very first measure, where aggressively detached chords accompany a rapid stepwise rise in the uppermost voice. Such sharply articulated gestures prompted the piece's nickname, "Military." In the first theme, a brief ornamental excursion into the lower register occurs at the end of the second and fourth measures. The same gesture appears in the contrasting secondary theme, but at smaller intervals. As we might expect, the first theme sounds twice and the single appearance of the contrasting theme is followed by a literal return of the first.
In the D major central section, we find a good example of Chopin's whole-tone harmonic sequences. After a cadence on the dominant we hear a sequence of closes in B flat, C and D--a stepwise return to the tonic of the middle section. The whole passage is really an instance of keyextension; there is no modulation. A non-thematic exploration of the registral contrasts of the first section provides the contrasting material of the central section, which otherwise is more melodic than the first. Chopin's return to the opening material is literal, but he eliminates the repeats, bringing the piece to an abrupt and surprising close.
Curated by Chanda VanderHart, Pianist and Musicologist