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Chopin’s songs resist easy categorization, in part because there are so few, making each one a statistically significant member of the set. Yet he wrote songs throughout his career, in an apparently spontaneous reaction to a poem that met his mood. All of the poets he set were contemporary Poles, and most of them he knew well personally. Intimate but seldom deeply revealing, the songs were sung by family members and friends in salon gatherings, and never in Chopin’s own public concerts.

Only 20 survive, with references to little more than a dozen lost ones, and only two were published during Chopin’s lifetime. Julian Fontana gathered 17 for posthumous publication as Op. 74 in 1857 and they quickly became very popular and widely translated. Franz Liszt, for one, responded almost immediately, arranging six for piano as Chants polonais, published in 1860. The group that Emanuel Ax and Dawn Upshaw have chosen span Chopin’s songs, from first to last.

Half of Chopin’s surviving songs are settings of poems by his older friend Stefan Witwicki. (Chopin also dedicated his Op. 41 Mazurkas to Witwicki.) “Zyczenie” (The Wish, 1829) is one of the lighter songs, as well as one of the two published in Kiev in 1837 and the first song in Liszt’s set. A waltzing mazurka, it has a merrily trilling eight-bar piano prelude that comes back between the two verses and at the end. The carefully balanced song also has a mini-cadenza in the middle. The melancholy ballad “Smutna rzeka” (The Sad River, 1831) and the flirtatious “Gdzie lubi” (Where She Loves, 1829) are also on texts by Witwicki.

Chopin’s earliest song is “Precz z moich oczu!” (Out of My Sight!, 1827), on a text by Adam Mickiewicz, the literary lion of Polish nationalists. In form it is almost a parlor scena, with a dramatic quasi-dialogue in the minor mode, followed by two quicker verses in the relative major as a sort of cabaletta. The introductory fervor consists of the beloved’s thunderous rejections answered by the lover’s meek acceptance. The lover’s banishment and enduring love are the subjects of the “cabaletta,” to music seemingly altogether too jaunty – and simplistic in the accompaniment – for the text. Whether Chopin meant for the music to intentionally subvert the words – suggesting that the banishment and ensuing despair are not permanent conditions, or that the lover’s lament is only a conventional formula – is for the interpreter to choose.

“Melodya” (Melody, 1847) was Chopin’s last song. With his relationship with George Sand dissolving and his health deteriorating rapidly, Chopin was receptive to this bleak poem by Count Zygmount Krasinski. The desolate lyric prospect of dying forgotten elicited an austere, through-composed setting that is perhaps the Chopin song closest to the aesthetics and techniques of German Lied composers such as Robert Schumann. At beginning and close, the voice is accompanied like a recitative by spare chords, usually in inversions. At the center, the song takes a quick unsettling slip to the flat side, urged forward by triplets in the piano’s right hand against the prevailing duple meter.

In 1845 Chopin set two dumkas (laments) by Bohdan Zaleski, a friend who married one of Chopin’s pupils. “Nie ma czego trzeba” (I Want What I Have Not, but also sometimes called simply “Sorrow”) is a march-like elegy in four verses, with a stark chordal accompaniment.

“Moja pieszczotka” (My Darling, 1837) is probably the song that sounds most completely Chopinesque, at least in comparison to his mature piano music. A mazurka on a love poem by Mickiewicz, it has sophisticated musical development as well as grace and charm. When it moves to the flat side in its original key of G-flat major, the performers are confronted with such rare chords as E-double-flat major and C-flat minor. It is also probably the most popular of Liszt’s six transcriptions.

– John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.