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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

The more obvious tokens of Chopin's Polishness are to be found, naturally enough, in his Polish dances, the polonaises and especially the mazurkas, which were of all his works the ones most prized by his contemporaries as characteristically or authentically “Chopinesque.” The man, in other words, was equated with (reduced to?) the group from which he hailed, as is usually the case with “others.” Yet here, as everywhere, Chopin was eclectic, or rather syncretic, forging a personal and very distinctive style out of heterogeneous, in some ways even incongruous, ingredients. The authentically national—meaning, in France, the authentically exotic—was only one of those ingredients.

The “mazurka,” as it was known abroad (largely thanks to Chopin) was the national dance of the Mazurs, the settlers of the Mazowsze plains surrounding Warsaw. Danced by couples either in circles or in country dance sets, it came in various types—the moderate kujawiak, the faster mazurek, the very rapid oberek, all represented among Chopin's mazurkas. What all types had in common was a strongly accented triple meter, with the strongest accents (usually on the second or third beat) marked by a tap of the heel. Thus even the fastest mazurkas are distinctly felt “in three,” unlike the waltz which, except for the slowest specimens, is normally counted “in one,” with never an accent except on the downbeat.

So characteristically Polish did Polish patriots consider this dance that a traditional mazurka melody, “Dombrowski's mazurka” (MazurekDabrowskiego)—so called because it was played in 1806 as an anthem to greet the briefly victorious Polish legion under General Jan Dombrowski (also spelled Dabrowski) that fought the hated Prussians, Austrians, and Russians on the side of Napoleon—became the national anthem of the resurrected Polish republic after World War I (Ex. 7-4). The melody illustrates the most characteristic mazurka pattern: a dotted rhythm on the first beat, followed by an accent.

Nationalism as a Medium

ex. 7-4 Mazurek Dabrowskiego

The first set of mazurkas Chopin composed as an exile from Poland, and therefore as nostalgia or exotica rather than in a spirit of insular nationalism, was the set of four published in 1834 as op. 17. All of them feature the characteristic heel-tapping rhythm exemplified in Ex. 7-4. All four are cast, like the vast majority of Chopin's mazurkas, in the ternary da capo form of the kujawiak rather than the more common successive strains (AABB, AABBCC, etc.) of the mazurek. Although it can be justified in “national” terms, this was already an accommodation to the common practice of the “art” tradition, with its minuets (or scherzos) and trios. Another touch that is especially characteristic of the mazurkas is the use of tonic (and occasionally tonic-fifth) pedals. All four mazurkas in op. 17 show it. The midsections of nos. 1 and 4 maintain it throughout; it is more intermittent, yet quite unmistakable, in the remaining pieces. It is, of course, a trace of folklore, the mazurka being primevally accompanied in its natural habitat by the duda or Polish bagpipe, which could produce either a tonic or tonic-fifth drone. Leaping melodic grace notes, though often thought of as especially Chopinesque, may be another bagpipe effect, since briefly stopping another pitch on the “chanter” or melody pipe is the only way one can articulate repeated notes given the bagpipe's unremitting air stream, which the player cannot “tongue” or interrupt in any way.

But all such life traces are filtered, in Chopin's French-period mazurkas, through a gauze of nostalgic memory conjured up by stinging or slithery chromatic harmony. In op. 17, no. 1, the effect is achieved by the use of modal mixtures and auxiliary dissonances to add a pungency that registers as poignancy to melodic reprises. The last phrase of op. 17, no. 2 (Ex. 7-5), with its play of passing chromatics (including the Lydian raised fourth degree) and appoggiaturas, epitomizes the slithery style, as does the second half of the midsection, all played over a tonic pedal.

Nationalism as a Medium

ex. 7-5 Frédéric Chopin, Mazurka, Op. 17, no. 2

By contrast, the surprising delayed harmonization of the opening note in op. 17, no. 3 (Ex. 7-6), turning what is by rights a consonant diatonic note into a dissonant chromatic suspension, is especially stinging. The major-minor instability of the third degree will persist throughout the piece, as will the instability of the fourth degree, ever tottering between the folklike Lydian tritone and the perfect common-practice interval over various local tonics.

Nationalism as a Medium

ex. 7-6 Frédéric Chopin, Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 3, mm. 1–4

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007006.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 23 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007006.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 23 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007006.xml