Fantasy F minor Op. 49
‘Today I finished the Fantasy – and the sky is beautiful, there’s a sadness in my heart – but that’s alright. If it were otherwise, perhaps my existence would be worth nothing to anyone’. (letter to J. Fontana, October 1841)
Frederick Niecks, not infrequently a rather critical monographer of Chopin, called the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 a ‘masterpiece’ and spoke of its ‘force of passion’. Gerald Abraham ranked it, alongside the Polonaise-Fantasy, the E major Scherzo and the third and fourth Ballades, as ‘the crown of Chopin’s work’. Assessments of this work teem with superlatives: ‘one of the highest expressions of the composer’s genius’ (Ashton Johnson), ‘one of the most magnificent works in the piano literature’ (Ludwik Bronarski), a work that should be played ‘only by really great pianists’ (John F. Porte).
Without doubt, the F minor Fantasy is characterised by a vigour and gesture worthy of the loftiest affairs; it also displays a concentration and contemplation suited to the deepest affairs. Theodor W. Adorno had the intuition to grasp the matter from an unexpectedly pertinent angle. He said (quite obsessively, as it happens): ‘A listener must stop up his ears not to hear Chopin’s F Minor Fantasy as a kind of tragically decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever, that some day […] she would rise again.’[i]
We can indeed speak of intuition in Adorno’s case, since when he wrote those words, in 1962, it was not yet known that the Fantasy was composed on motives from one of the most popular Polish insurrectionary songs, namely ‘Litwinka’ by Karol Kurpiński. ‘Litwinka’ was sung by the whole of Poland and the whole of the Great Emigration – the community of exiles who fled Poland in the wake of the November Uprising. It was included in songbooks: for example, in Pieśni Rewolucji Polskiej z 29 listopada roku 1830 [Songs of the Polish revolution of 29 November 1830], published in Paris in 1832 by Wojciech Sowiński, and in an analogous collection published in Leipzig the following year by Feliks Biliński. Richard Wagner included a couple of phrases from this song in his overture Polonia.
Chopin did not employ quotation in the F minor Fantasy, be it literal, as he had previously in the Fantasy on Polish Airs, or approximate, as with the carol ‘Lulajże Jezuniu’ in the Scherzo in B minor and with the song ‘Tam na błoniu błyszczy kwiecie’ in the ‘Palman’ Mazurka in E minor. ‘Litwinka’ is merely alluded to in the F minor Fantasy. It is present in that work, but in a discreet way. One must listen closely to discern it.
In the first Warsaw review of this work, written in 1843 in the Biblioteka Warszawska, Józef Sikorski, the future editor of Ruch Muzyczny, wrote: ‘Phrases characteristic of our music can be found already in the march that opens the Fantasy’, and further that ‘each of the work’s themes is more or less marked by our national character’.
The method of composing with allusions was suggested by Karol Kurpiński. In his 1821 work O ekspresji muzycznej i naśladowaniu [On musical expression and imitation], he encourages composers of wordless works to use fragments of songs, which, as he wrote, ‘have a certain significance, as souvenirs etched into everyone’s memory’; hence ‘they may serve for various allusions’. He described the sense of his method in express terms: ‘For example, the tone of that march sets Polish troops before your eyes’.
From the time of his youth, Chopin gained experience in employing such allusions by improvising on national themes. The chronicler Eustachy Marylski recalls the young Chopin improvising on Niemcewicz’s Śpiewy historyczne [Historical songs] in the boarding school run by his father. Over a decade later, in Paris, he did the same in the presence of Niemcewicz himself. This is mentioned by Ferenc Liszt, in his famous book about Chopin, but others also wrote of Chopin’s improvisations during gatherings of the exile community in Paris: Bohdan Zaleski, Eustachy Januszkiewicz and Count Józef Krasiński. The Kronika Emigracji Polskiej published an account of one soirée, hosted by Prince Czartoryski, at which Chopin ‘improvised delightful fantasies from Polish melodies’.
Two kinds of experience converge in the F minor Fantasy: the experience of the composer and the experience of the improviser. In listening to this work, one easily distinguishes the parts inspired by improvisation from the ‘purely’ compositional parts.
It was not without reason that Chopin called his new work a fantasy. This was indeed a fantasy, though not a conventionalised fantasy quoting popular operatic melodies or national airs and then developing (or paraphrasing) them through variation. The Fantasy in F minor referred to a genre developed during the eighteenth century, cultivated by Mozart and later by Schubert. The binding rules here were individual form (admittedly departing from existing templates, but not devoid of form), elegiac or nostalgic expression and, importantly, a certain esotericism, and so the concealing or veiling of one’s inspirations and one’s message. The fantasy relied on the listener’s intelligence.
Musicological interpreters not au fait with these generic principles could not get to grips with the form of the F minor Fantasy. Niecks found in it ‘enthralling weirdness’ and ‘fantastic waywardness’. Leichtentritt read its form as ‘indistinct’, suffering from a ‘lack of logic and continuity’ in its design. For some, it was nothing more than a ‘series of bewildering images’, presented ‘in great elation’, ‘hying past the listener’s imagination at frenetic speed’. For others, it was the transformed, or even deformed, form of a so-called sonata allegro or a rondo, or a hybrid of those forms. Yet all the while it was simply a fantasy, and so a genre in which the form – by no means accidental – unfolded in a specific, albeit unique, unconventional, way. It may be summarised as follows: the Fantasy opens with two marches, which set the tone for the whole work, and closes with a kind of conclusion. The body of the work is filled with narration that unfolds over three phases. The first phase, the exposition, presents the themes, which are five in number. The themes are divided by improvisation, the third flurry of which leads into a culmination. The second phase is suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, giving way to music that seems to come from another world.
The marches. The first is in the key of F minor – the principal key of the work. In Chopin’s times, F minor was often treated as a mournful key. The second march is in F major. It is this march that brings a clear allusion to ‘Litwinka’, the message of which was borne by the text associated with its melody: ‘Wionął wiatr błogi na Lechitów ziemię’ [The air blew sweet across the Polish land].
After the marches, Chopin first unfurls music resembling notated improvisation (bars 43–46), which is followed immediately by the explosion – agitato – of music from the first phase of narration. The opening theme, adhering to the dark key of F minor, emerges from the bottom of the keyboard (bars 68–73). The second, complementary, theme breaks out in two-note chords at the top of the keyboard, in the bright key of A flat major (bars 77–80). The third theme may be called a counter-theme; it sounds in the key of the dominant, C minor, with quite alarming octaves (bars 93–98). Only with the fourth theme do we reach towards the climax, which comes in another relative key (E flat major). It resounds with the utmost force (fortissimo), in a heroic gesture (bars 109–112). This sequence of themes ends with the fifth: this is another march, but of the military, rather than funeral, variety. Its even-paced bass allusively evokes another insurrectionary song: ‘Bracia, do bitwy nadszedł czas’ (more specifically, it evokes the second part of that song) (bars 127–135). The second phase in the narrative, cast into the low tonal register, is suddenly broken off. Preceded by improvisation that flies off into a luminous sphere of sonority, a chorale appears, in the most distant key from F minor: B major. This does indeed sound like a voice ‘from another world’. This music has been called a ‘hymn’, a ‘prayer’, a ‘song of ardent faith’ and an ‘epiphanic’ moment (bars 199–206). The narrative of the third phase again presents a sequence of five themes. It emerges from the dark B flat minor, leading towards the bright, victorious A flat major.
The Fantasy ends with a moment of reflection, a reminiscence of the chorale, but the final chords sound in a triumphant fortissimo. The F minor Fantasy was published in Paris barely two months after its composition. In the UK and Germany, it was issued slightly later, at the beginning of 1842. Polish music-lovers could read a review of this work in March of that year, in the Poznań Tygodnik literacki.
[i] Theodor W. Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, tr. E. B. Ashton (New York, 1976),164.