SONATA LATER ON
And now for Chopin's heroic side, exemplified chiefly by the regal or military polonaises, the chillingly macabre or ironic scherzos, a few of the nocturnes (composed as if expressly to counter the genre's association with the feminine)—but above all by the ballades, like the preludes a genre that Chopin invented (or reinvented at the keyboard), and that later spread far and wide. The ballade was the repository for Chopin's most serious expressions of Polish nationalism. It was universally understood in that vein by his contemporaries; and in its widespread influence it helped establish what James Parakilas has aptly called “a uniform, international nationalism”23 as a primary constituent of European (and, incipiently, Euro-American) art music in the nineteenth century.
Up to now the romantic ballad has been in our experience a vocal genre, based on poems (like Goethe's Erlkönig) that emulated narrative folk songs. Taking Goethe's poem, known to us (from chapter 3) in settings by Reichardt, Schubert, and Loewe, as our archetype of the genre, we could further stipulate that a ballad typically concerns a horrific situation of some kind, and that it proceeds through a combination of straight narration and dramatic dialogue to a climactic denouement (“…in his arms, the child lay dead!”). It was, so to speak, an end-accented genre.
The British Isles and Scandinavia were the home of the authentic folk prototypes, circulated by Herder and other collectors of the late eighteenth century, on which professional poets in other countries fashioned their literary ballads, often with the pretense that they were drawing on local oral tradition. That was the case with Goethe, and that was certainly the case with Mickiewicz, the Polish national poet and cultural hero of the Polish diaspora, who brought the ballad to Poland in his first book, Ballady i romanse (1822). In the introduction, Mickiewicz called the ballad “a tale based on the events of common life or on the annals of chivalry.”24 It was in order to give Poland its own chivalric poetry, testifying imaginatively to a Polish knightly past, that Mickiewicz invented Polish balladry. All over Eastern Europe poetry was being used in this way to remodel the past as a basis for present aspirations and in hopes of a better future.
Like Chopin, Mickiewicz lived in Paris after the failed rebellion of 1831. He was at the center of an émigré community to which the composer was far more peripherally attached. But Chopin was very much aware of his work and even told Schumann, on a visit to Leipzig in 1841, that his ballads (of which he had by then written two, the second dedicated to Schumann) were modeled on “certain poems of Mickiewicz.”25 This avowal, plus the fact that the early German editions called the pieces Balladen ohne Worte (“Ballads without words”), has led many Chopinists off on wild goose chases to find the actual poems by Mickiewicz whose contents were embodied in Chopin's music (or even secretly set to it). But Chopin probably never meant to imply such a thing. Like Mendelssohn in his Lieder ohne Worte, he probably intended what we would nowadays call a structural analogy (more precisely, a homology) between the sung and instrumental media, in which the very absence of words served to liberate the poetic utterance and make it at once more intense and more universal in its appeal.
That, at any rate, seems to be what George Sand sought to convey in a passage from her memoirs that purported to summarize Chopin's views on the meaning of music, thoughts she managed to extract from him despite his inclination to “talk little and pour out his heart only at his piano.” Here, according to the woman who knew him best, is Chopin's esthetic credo:
Where the instruments alone take charge of translating it, the musical drama flies on its own wings and does not claim to be translated by the listener. It expresses itself by a state of mind it induces in you by force or gently. When Beethoven unchains the storm [in the Pastoral Symphony], he does not strive to paint the pallid glimmer of lightning and to make us hear the crash of thunder. He renders the shiver, the feeling of wonder, the terror of nature of which man is aware and which he shares in experiencing it…. The beauty of musical language consists in taking hold of the heart or imagination, without being condemned to pedestrian reasoning. It maintains itself in an ideal sphere where the listener who is not musically educated still delights in the vagueness, while the musician savors this great logic that presides over the masters’ magnificent issue of thought.26
These points, whether expressed in Chopin's words or Sand's, apply with particular force to the Ballades, which are by definition story pieces, but without any specified subject matter. Chopin in effect has announced an intention to do something similar to what Berlioz did in his Symphonie fantastique, but has foresworn as futile and even trivializing the use of a programmatic guide to interpretation. Rather, by the use of instrumental music, he now sought to duplicate (and even to surpass) not the content but rather the effect of Mickiewicz's nationalistic narrative poetry. Anticipating by half a century the favorite maxim of the French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Chopin sought to peindre, non la chose, l'effet qu'elle produit: “paint not the thing but the effect it produces.”27
The means were all ready to hand, but had never been coordinated in precisely the way that Chopin now proposed to deploy them. The means in question were those of the traditional sonata, as dramatized by Beethoven and lyricalized by Schubert. The unprecedented deployment reflected the characteristic structure and rhetoric of the poetic ballad. It was one of the most sophisticated and successful mutual adaptations of music and literature ever achieved in a century that was practically dedicated to that achievement. No wonder it was influential.
To represent narrative content by means of techniques borrowed from sonata form was an inevitable solution. By its very nature the process of thematic development—in which musical events seem to be not merely juxtaposed but causally connected, so that the past conditions the present and the present (both thematically and tonally) forecasts the future—has a compelling narrative aspect. And by its very nature the newly radicalized contrast in thematic content—in which a lyrically expansive “second subject” (in an increasingly “remote” alternate key) had lately begun to assert equal rights and claim equal time—implied an equally compelling dramatic potential. There was even the latent possibility of a traditional narrative “frame” if one deployed the traditional slow introduction and coda in tandem.
Let us turn now to Chopin's Ballade in G minor, op. 23, now known as the First, completed in 1835 (having possibly been sketched as early as 1831, in the immediate aftermath of the Polish revolt) and published in 1836. The relationship of its spectacularly end-accented overall shape to the narrative shape of, say, Erlkönig is obvious. From a briefly loud and “weighty” (pesante) opening largo the piece has quieted down to piano by m. 4 and settled into a ruminative moderato by m. 9 (Ex. 7-12a). There is no challenge to either the soft dynamic or the deliberate tempo until the fortieth measure (Ex. 7-12b), where a sudden forte, accompanied by the marking agitato (soon succeeded by sempre più mosso), begins foretelling the general trajectory the piece will follow (albeit not without incidental detours) until il più forte possibile (“the greatest possible loudness”) is reached in m. 206, preparing the way for a final explosion of fireworks, presto con fuoco, two bars later, to be played at the greatest possible speed (Ex. 7-12c). The whole Ballade is in effect a single magnificently sustained, ten-minute, 264-bar dramatic crescendo that continually gathers momentum from portentous introduction to cabaletta-like coda. Nothing could be further removed from the small aphoristic or sectional forms with which we have up to now associated Chopin's name. The piece shows him to have been capable of formal planning on a colossal scale few had attempted since Beethoven, however novel or sui generis the relationship of the constituent parts.
To compare the coda to a cabaletta is to add an operatic ingredient to the Ballade's eclectic recipe alongside the elements drawn from the practice of sonata form and the rhetoric of narrative poetry. That impression is corroborated at the other end of the piece, to return to Ex. 7-12a, in the bare-octaves introduction (Largo), which, though exceeding the range of any actual singer, is unmistakably vocal in style, comprising three phrases of evident recitative, each one shorter, hence more urgent, than the last. The first phrase arpeggiates a harmony that is retrospectively identified by the following cadence as a Neapolitan sixth. The last phrase is left hanging (m. 7) on a remarkably evocative chord containing three dissonances—two appoggiaturas and one suspension—over a dominant root. This chord was so striking to nineteenth-century musicians that Frederick Niecks, author of an early biography of Chopin, called it “the emotional key-note of the whole poem.”28
The way in which the first theme of the Moderato begins (m. 8)—with an arpeggio that resolves the keynote chord's charged dissonances one by one (E♭ to D, G to F♯ by octave displacement, B♭ to A by direct melodic succession)—is evidence of the composer's narrative skill: the bard's exordium ends on a note of suspense, leading the listener with urgent expectations into the unfolding drama. What is of greatest relevance right now, however, is the fact that the two main harmonic events of the narrator's Introduction, the Neapolitan sixth and the keynote chord, both return in the coda (cabaletta), after having gone unheard throughout the main body of the Ballade. The Neapolitan sixth is taken up at the height of the presto con fuoco (m. 216) and the cadence it initiates is then repeated obsessively three more times (Ex. 7-12d). The keynote chord, meanwhile (or rather its constituent notes in the form of an arpeggio), returns at m. 257 (Ex. 7-12e) in the form of a recitative phrase in octaves that keenly recalls the rhetoric of the “bard's exordium.” It serves to introduce the horrifically dissonant final outburst before the end, just as a brief phrase of recitative (“in his arms …”—on the Neapolitan!) had preceded the catastrophic denouement in Schubert's setting of Erlkönig.
Both Schubert and Chopin used the recitative and the Neapolitan harmony in response to the narrative framing device in the poems their music served to transmit. In Schubert's case it was an actual poem, Goethe's ballad about the Elf King. In Chopin's case it was the imaginary or conceptual ballad of which his music was the embodiment. In both cases, however, the narrator speaks in his own voice exactly twice: in the first stanza (Introduction) and in the last (cabaletta). In between comes the main action, carried not by the narrator but by the “principals”—in Chopin's case the two main themes, plus a couple of nonrecurring episodes.
Very much unlike the narrator's choppy phrases of recitative, which we interpret as a conventional representation of speaking, both of the Ballade's main themes are cast in full lyrical periods, suggesting singers’ voices. The first, in a manner quite unlike standard sonata procedure, comes to a full close before the first episode begins. There is no cadential elision at this point, as we normally expect to find in a sonata. But the situation remains sufficiently sonatalike so that we recognize what follows as an episode, not a theme; we not only expect a modulation, but we specifically expect one to the major. And so we are prepared to know the second theme when we hear it (Ex. 7-12f ), even though it comes not in the “classical” relative major but in the Schubertian submediant.
This second theme, unlike the first, ends with a dissolve on every appearance—another departure from what we might take to be the sonata-ish straight-and-narrow. Its first dissolution is accompanied by a restive return of the first theme over the dominant pedal, acting as a bridge to set up the climactic statement of the second theme in A major, at a tritone's remove from its first statement, thus most dramatically—even melodramatically—providing the tonal far-out point (FOP). This climax is set up by means of a typically operatic stall (Ex. 7-12g), the kind of thing that prepares the soprano's high note in Bellini and Donizetti, composers from whom Chopin learned an enormous amount, not only about bel canto lyricism, but about dramatic pacing as well.
The episode that follows next is sometimes called the “waltz episode” owing to the character of the accompaniment. Unlike typical sonata episodes it does not modulate, but rather prepares the return of E♭ for the final statement of the second theme. This is followed by the final statement of the first theme, again in the agitated dominant-pedal mode replete with stalling tactics, but in its original key, thus completing a tonal palindrome: g–E♭–A–E♭–g (upper case denoting major, lower case minor). The superimposition of this closed tonal progression, with its suggestion of “ternary form,” over the steadily gathering momentum of the Ballade's narrative unfolding is further proof of the eclectic complexity of design that undergirds its thrillingly immediate and emotional impress.
Now this description of the Ballade's sequence of events has gone out of its way to call attention to those aspects of its unfolding that do not conform to the normal sonata-form template. Chiefly these departures have to do with the order in which things happen. The second theme is recapitulated before the first. The FOP occurs not at the climax of development but at the moment of greatest lyrical expanse. Development as such is deployed in brief setups to offset lyrical high points rather than as a modulatory agent. The coda has an entirely unconventional relationship to the introduction, as we have already observed.
Because of these apparent deviations from standard operating procedure, some have been reluctant to compare Chopin's Ballade with the sonatas of earlier composers or to locate the source of its rhetoric in sonata procedures, even if we are less likely now to assume, as did the otherwise admiring Niecks, that such deviations merely demonstrate Chopin's incapacity for handling large classical forms. And yet the shapes and gestures that give form to the Ballade—the bithematic exposition, the motivic reconfigurations of the first theme, the recapitulation (never mind in what order), the elaborate coda (never mind its contents)—all had their origins and sole precedents in symphonies and sonatas, and derived their meaning (as narrative, as drama) from the listener's recognition of that fact.
Chopin had so internalized the morphology of the sonata, one might say, that he could deploy its elements in idiosyncratic ways that actually resemble the oral techniques of a folk balladeer, who (as Goethe remarked) has his pregnant subject—his figures, their actions and emotions—so deep in his mind that he does not know how he will bring it to light. He can begin lyrically, epically, dramatically and proceed, changing the form at will, either to hurry to the end or to delay it considerably.
So Chopin changed the form of the sonata to suit his narrative purposes. Perhaps, then, it would be best to say, not that Chopin's Ballades are in a modified sonata form (which fails to consider, or even obscures, the reasons for modification), but that they represent the sonata later on, the way French or Spanish is Latin later on. Recognizable elements of an older vocabulary and syntax have been newly configured and positioned to serve new rhetorical and expressive aims; and it would make no greater sense to interpret the new configurations as decline or deterioration in the handling of form than it would to regard French (as many once surely did) as a deteriorated Latin.
The extra recurrences of the main themes, seemingly at odds with sonata procedures, are crucial to our perception of the Ballade as a ballad, which, besides being a narrative, is also a strophic song, unfolding in recurrent stanzas. By synthesizing strophic and sonata principles, Chopin brilliantly solved the problem of capturing the relationship in a ballad between the recurrent tune and the ever-evolving narrative content. Every time the first theme recurs, to pick the most obvious example, its continuation is different: the first time it gives way to the first episode, the second time to the lyrical climax, and the third time to the coda-cabaletta. Thus it is invested each time with a new narrative function, just as each repeated melodic stanza is invested in a poetic ballad with new words.
But if the Ballade is a narrative, what kind of a story is it telling? George Sand's explanation, that the instrumental medium substitutes feeling content for object content, is not quite sufficient, whether or not it carries the composer's authority. Feelings can as easily be evoked by pictures (like Beethoven's storm picture in the Pastoral Symphony, to cite Sand's or Chopin's own example) as by stories. Why a story—and a folk story at that?
(23) Parakilas, Ballads Without Words, p. 24.
(24) Quoted in Parakilas, Ballads Without Words, p. 34.
(25) Schumann, On Music and Musicians, p. 143.
(26) George Sand, Impressions et Souvenirs (1873), quoted in Berger, “Chopin's Ballade, op. 23,” p. 78.
(27) Quoted in Robert Goldwater, Symbolism (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 75.
(28) Frederick Niecks, Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician (London, 1988), quoted in Parakilas, Ballads Without Words, p. 57.
- Citation (MLA):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Jun. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007010.xml>.
- Citation (APA):
- Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Jun. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007010.xml
- Citation (Chicago):
- Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Jun. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007010.xml