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.
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's mazurkas are far more advanced than those by his contemporaries. Chopin borrowed sounds he found outside the European "art" music tradition and used them to create music within that tradition. Some consider Chopin's mazurkas to be the most original of his works.
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.
Chopin composed the Four Mazurkas, Op. 17, in 1832-3; they were published in Leipzig in 1834. The four pieces, some of his first compositions after moving to Paris, are in B flat major, E minor, A flat major and A minor.
The fourth of the Op. 17 set, in A minor, opens with four measures of introduction that do nothing to establish the tonic. The sense of floating produced by this harmonic ambiguity enables the chromatic descent in the bass that occurs twice in the main theme, a quickly rising melody that resists falling back until its close. As we should expect, Chopin repeats the theme, but here it is varied melodically. In minuet fashion, a new theme provides contrast and is followed by a slightly varied return of the main theme. Chromatic alterations in the first section not only anticipate the key of A major in the central trio, but also produce an "exotic" sound associated with Polish folk music. In particular, the raised fourth scale degree (a D sharp), creates a mode called "Lydian." This effect is only temporary, however, as the return of the main theme brings with it a clear A minor.
The trio section's melody is of a more driving rhythm than the main theme and is supported by droning open fifths in the bass. To this day, it is one of Chopin's more popular tunes. In the final return of the main theme we find Chopin moving outside the boundaries of the mazurka. He does not give the theme in its entirety but spins out material based on fragments of the theme to create a coda that closes the piece artfully, instead of allowing a sharp stop we find in some of his earlier examples. What is most striking, however, is that Chopin restates the introduction and its tonal ambiguity, ending the piece on an F major chord, not A minor.
Curated by Liam Keane, Primephonic Curator