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At-A-Glance

Length: c. 4 minutes

Orchestration: solo piano

About this Piece

The mazurka, a Polish folk dance that became popular as a drawing room dance in Western Europe in the mid-19th century, found its stylization as art music at the hand of one of the country-of-origin’s favorite sons, Frédéric Chopin. Chopin’s love for his native Poland seems to have stayed with him throughout his life even though he never returned to his country after leaving in 1830 at age 20. When he left, his teacher, Joseph Elsner, gave him an urn filled with Polish soil; he never parted with the urn, and it was buried with him when he died. As a transplanted Parisian, Chopin didn’t place his nationalism under wraps; he kept the flame of Poland alive in himself by writing music that was part of the country’s basic identity, namely dance forms – the mazurka and the polonaise. In the mazurka, Chopin appropriated a dance form that he could manipulate with utmost sensitivity, subtlety, and myriad shades of expressiveness. Indeed, the temperamental range to be found in the more than 50 mazurkas he wrote throughout his life is astonishing, from deep melancholy to abandoned gaiety, with many moods between those extremes. Yet a Chopin mazurka is not only a vehicle for emotional expressiveness but also for musical ingenuity, including chromaticism, daring modulations, and striking harmonic coloration. In the all-important matter of rhythm, the authentic folk heritage of the three-quarter-time dances are conveyed by the strong accents that appear most frequently on the third beats of measures, sometimes on the second. And modal inflections, with their Slavic nature, add distinct color to these remarkably varied pieces.

— Orrin Howard