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 than the earlier ones 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.
In the second of the set, in A minor, Chopin employs the shifting metric accents found in the Polish mazurka from the start, stopping the melody on the second beat of every second measure. As the first section trails off into a continuous, dotted melody, Chopin introduces a triplet figure that is a prominent feature of Op. 59, No. 3. The contrasting trio section begins in a bright A major, its melodic material becoming increasingly chromatic until the reprise.
The most arresting moment of the A minor mazurka is the return of the main theme, which appears, unexpectedly, on G sharp minor, enharmonically anticipating the A flat major key of the ensuing mazurka. The more immediate effect of this key change, however, is to destroy the strength of the traditional reprise, creating, instead, a developmental passage that modulates to the expected key half-way through the main theme. A brief coda constructed of fragments from the first them closes the work.