What is a Mazurka? Well, quite obviously, it is a dance typical for the folk music of the Polish countryside. An answer such as this would reveal the speaker’s knowledge of a style and of a genre. Yet, if applied to Chopin’s Mazurkas (which are, of course, the greatest and best known of all mazurkas of the “Western” repertoire), this definition would prove, at least, debatable.
Are Mazurkas dances? Of course; yet, Chopin never meant them to be danced (even though Arthur Rubinstein, when recording Chopin’s complete Mazurkas, demonstrated the steps of the mazurka in the recording studio for the profit of the bystanders!).
Are Mazurkas folk music? Doubtlessly, the origin of the mazurka clearly belongs to Polish folk music; yet, it has been demonstrated that Chopin never employed actual folk tunes in his music. Béla Bartók argued that his Mazurkas are examples of “national” rather than of “folk” music.
Are Mazurkas “from the countryside”? Certainly, once more their roots delve deep in the Polish rural area; but it is likely that Chopin’s exposition to mazurkas happened mostly in the city of Warsaw, where mazurkas were played in the streets, and where, probably, “urbanized” forms of mazurkas were in greater demand than those actually found and played in the countryside.
Are Mazurkas… “mazurkas”? Yes and no, since Chopin did not limit himself to the typical gestures of the mazur, but also employed features from the Kujawiak (a dance typical from the region of Kujawy) and from the Oberek.
Some traits, of course, are shared by the “authentic” folk mazurkas and by Chopin’s: the ternary tempo, the typical rhythm, the abundant use of repetitions on all levels. These repetitions had originally the purpose of articulating the times and movements of dance; but even in mazurkas which were not intended for dancing (as Chopin’s), this feature is retained.
Other characteristics, instead, are unique for Chopin’s mazurkas, and are probably nowhere to be found in the folk repertoire. For instance, Chopin did not refrain from using fugato techniques (!) in his Mazurkas, or even Chorale-like writing; his harmonic wanderings are alien to the more predictable chordal structures of folk mazurkas, and his use of modality may have been influenced by some traits of the folk mazurka, but still is very much his own.
Chopin’s output of Mazurkas outnumbers all other genres in his catalogue. During his lifetime, Chopin published forty-one Mazurkas provided with opus numbers, and two individual works without opus number. Many others were published posthumously, and some – of which we know that they did exists – are currently lost. The first known Mazurka by Chopin was written when he was just fifteen; the last dates from the year of his death. For almost a quart of a century, Chopin steadily wrote Mazurkas at a rather constant pace. They therefore represent a unique possibility to observe his stylistic evolution, his personality and his genius throughout the entire arch of his compositional career. As he once wrote to his family in 1831, “My piano heard nought but mazurs”.
Generally, Chopin’s Mazurkas are brief in duration, and not excessively demanding on the pianistic level. They require a masterful handling of the tempo and rubato, a subtle sensitivity to the nuances of sound, pedalling and phrasing.
Chopin’s Mazurkas op. 41 saw the light in 1840 with a dedication to Stefan Witwicki. The order of the four Mazurkas is different in the two main “old” editions, the Parisian and the Leipzig one. Among the Mazurkas op. 41, no. 1 has a precise dating, since we possess a sketch of November 28th, 1838. At that time Chopin was in Majorca with George Sand. His nostalgia for his native land is expressed here in a touching fashion; indeed, this is one of the very few Mazurkas where a traditional theme is almost literally cited. It is a song written by Franciszek Kowalski, called Flowers sparkling on the common, which had been among the favourites during the Polish insurrections. The second Mazurka of the set opens, in Chopin’s (allegedly) own words, on the evocation of a guitar’s arpeggiated chords. In its central section, reminiscences of Polish music seem to intertwine with memories from the more recent musical experiences in Majorca. By way of contrast, the third Mazurka is quintessentially Polish, and in particular refers to musical features typical for the region of Kujawia. The fourth Mazurka is perhaps the most original of the set, with a lovely blending of poetry, song, and dance.
Different from op. 41, we have no precise dating for op. 50, except, of course, their publication date (1842). They are dedicated to the Polish patriot Leon Szmitkowski. All three pieces of the set reveal the full maturity of Chopin’s compositional idiom in the genre of the Mazurka. To be sure, references to the Polish folk tradition are clearly discernible, especially in the first Mazurka in G major, with a special presence of Kujawiak gestures. Yet, the delicate closing of this piece has nothing of the folk dances’ immediate expressivity. Kujawiak elements are also found in the second Mazurka, with its brilliant intertwining of binary and ternary tempo. The third Mazurka is perhaps the most perfect of the set, with its clever use of polyphony and its refined treatment of counterpoint. The unlikely meeting of a folk dance with the most complex compositional techniques of the Western tradition is masterfully handled by Chopin, who does not turn his compositional mastery into pedantry, but rather employs it for exquisitely expressive purposes.
The set of three Mazurkas op. 56 was achieved in 1843, and these are among the finest examples of Chopin’s handling of this genre. Here again we find polyphony, but with a less serious and more personal character. It is as if each of the voices would represent a personality, entering in dialogue with another. In marked contrast, the second Mazurka is deliberately marked by peasant features. In Ferdynand Hoesick’s brilliant definition, “The basses bellow, the strings go hell for leather, the lads dance with the lasses and they all but wreck the inn”. In fact, the overall atmosphere is determined more by the sound of rural music than by actual quotes from melodies and tunes. Here again we find elements of the Kujawiak, combining with each other in a very creative fashion. An entirely different atmosphere characterizes op. 56 no. 3, with its expressive elegance and its beautifully crafted structure in terms of form and harmony.
Op. 59 opens in hushed tones, with the secretive and confidential enunciation of the first theme; later, the first Mazurka of this set of three will include a number of different themes, each and all possessing a musical individuality of its own. A markedly narrative character is found in the second Mazurka, which has a deeply expressive dimension, as if from afar. In 1844, the autograph of this Mazurka was sent by Chopin to Mendelssohn, on the latter’s request, as a wedding gift for Mendelssohn’s bride. The third Mazurka involves both player and hearers in an enthralling dance, whereby moments of musical frenzy alternate with subdued passages, necessary for building up the passionate climaxes.
Op. 63 opens with an enigmatic Mazurka, initially showing a plainly, robustly mazur rhythm, but then revealing a great depth of conflicting emotions and delicate feelings. The following piece, instead, is entirely pervaded by a sentiment of longing and yearning, and represents a kind of intimate confession. By way of contrast, the final Mazurka is full of cantabile and expressivity – at times subdued, at times more openly proclaimed.
The two Mazurkas characterized by the indication “Dbop.” were published during Chopin’s lifetime, but unprovided with an opus number. That indicated as Dbop. 42A was written in 1840 and is dedicated to Emile Gaillard. Indeed, this piece can hardly be defined as a Mazurka at all, since it lacks all the “folklike” features displayed in other examples of this genre. But, as we said at the beginning, Chopin’s Mazurkas are Chopin’s Mazurkas.
Mazurka Dbop. 42B belongs in a collection of Morceaux de salon, published by the magazine Notre temps, and including pieces written by different composers among whom Chopin, but also Czerny, Rosenheim and Thalberg. Yet, Chopin’s Mazurka does not correspond to the rather superficial canons of salon music, with its expressive depth and intense, intimate character.
B-flat major Mazurka WN 7, along with the G-major Mazurka WN 8, are youthful works, dating 1825-6; however, Chopin’s periodizing is fascinating and already reveals his unique personality. A quintessentially Chopinesque melancholia is found in the A-minor Mazurka WN 14, just a couple of years after the preceding ones; a much more boisterous style characterizes WN 24, with its powerful chords in the “open” key of C major. WN 25 completes the set which had been published in Germany by Schlesinger as op. 68, and offers us a generous abundance of expressive means.
Mazurka WN 26 was published as op. 67 no. 1, and was written in 1835. It is a simple, straightforward piece, written as a homage to a young Polish lady. By way of contrast, even if Mazurka WN 45 is found in an album once belonging to Maria Szymanowska, it is likely that Chopin wrote it for her daughter. Another lady, a Mrs. Hoffmann, is the dedicatee of Mazurka WN 48, published posthumously as op. 67 no. 3, whilst WN 60, published as op. 67 no. 4 by Fontana, is a small gem of interior profundity and poetry.
Together, the Mazurkas recorded here truly represent the multifaceted creative genius of Chopin, the variety of his moods, the richness of his personality, and lead us into a journey at the discovery of his Polishness, and of his refined musicianship.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
TATIANA LARIONOVA: Born in 1979 in Primorskij Krai (URSS) Tatiana Larionova began studying the piano at the age of five. In 1991, she entered the Central Music School in Moscow, where she studied under Professor Yuri Slesarev. After graduating in 1997 with highest rating, Tatiana attended the Moscow State Conservatory where she studied until 2004 under Professor Victor Merzhanov, taking, again with best votes, her doctorate. In 2005 she got a full-scholarship of the International Center for Music, Park University, Missouri where she studied with Professor Stanislav Ioudenitch and attended masterclasses of D. Bashkirov and Fou Ts’ong. Tatiana Larionova is top prize winner of several international piano competitions, including: Web Concert Hall International Competition (USA, 2007); first prize Domenico Cimarosa International Piano Prize (Italy, 2009), first prize, “Palma d’oro” International Piano Competition (Italy, 2010). Tatiana participated in International Piano Festivals, including “Bodensee-Festival” (Germany) and the International European Piano Forum (Berlin, 2001), and she is artist is residence of Col Legno Festival, Lucca, and Tiroler Festspiele Erl. She has performed recitals and concerts in the most important halls in Europe (Russia, Byelorussia, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, Suisse and Italy) and US. In 2001, Tatiana made her orchestral debut performing Mozart Piano Concerto # 23 in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the orchestra of the conservatory conducted by A. Kaluzhnyi with incredible success of public and critic. After this date she performed with many orchestras around the globe.
In 2009, Tatiana recorded her debut CD/DVD for Limen Music featuring works by Haydn, Liszt and Rachmaninov and in 2015, Schuncke Piano Music CD for Brilliant Classics. Since 2008 she is playing regularly in duo with Davide Cabassi, and together they are artistic directors of the festival "Primavera di Baggio" in Milan. In 2009, Tatiana won “Milano Donna” prize. This award is dedicated to the women who with their professional activity represents the name of this city in the world.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.