Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47
Given that Chopin died in 1849 at the age of 39, it is unfair to refer to any of his music as having been “late” compositions. But what can be wondered at is the sheer musical quality of his output in his final ten years. Nearly every composition bearing his name from that period is a masterpiece. His Ballade in A-flat, Op. 47, comes from the beginning of that decade in 1841.
We conceive of narrative in verbal terms. The story. The poem. The novel. In literature as well as in song, the ballade had long been associated with epic and dramatic themes – emotional storytelling. Chopin appropriated the musical ballade from these verbal roots. Of the four ballades written over the course of his career, the Third Ballade is the warmest and most lyrical. Even its central turbulent detours cannot diminish its ardor.
The Polonaise-Fantasy is unique. For some it is rambling and episodic. For others it is his greatest single composition. Emotions flash and flare, then just as suddenly are subsumed into dreams. Liszt described it as being “marked by feverish and restless anxiety,” with “a deep sadness, broken constantly by startled movements, by sudden alarms, by disturbed rest.” And for the late Vladimir Horowitz this was Chopin casting the performer as a great actor, demanding “a gamut of emo- tions; sometimes melancholic, sometimes frenzied, sometimes elated, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes dramatic, sometimes lyric, sometimes grandiose, and sometimes majestic.” Completed in 1846 when the composer was already seriously ill with tuberculosis, the Polonaise-Fantasy was his last major work.
The Sonata in B minor, Op.58, of 1844, returns us to a traditional four-movement structure though its emotional range is no less immense. After the downward plunge and martial chords of the opening, the first movement is teeming with voices in motion, bursting with an heroic optimism as much as a serene introspection.
Following the rollicking Scherzo, the third movement, an aching nocturne, arrives with stern disorienting chords. Voices emerge and recede, and an air of serenity stands out against the energies of the surrounding movements. The final movement is a joyous virtuosic eruption. Never underestimate the thrill of watching music like this being played.