Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
In 1836, a year after his first scherzo, Chopin published his first ballade. He dedicated it to one of his friends at the time, Baron Nathaniel Stockhausen, ambassador of the Kingdom of Hanover. Both the Baron and his wife took piano lessons from Chopin.
‘I have received from Chopin a Ballade’, Robert Schumann informed his friend Heinrich Dorn in the autumn of 1836. ‘It seems to me to be the work closest to his genius (though not the most brilliant). I told him [Schumann was writing the day after a meeting with Chopin] that of everything he has created thus far it appeals to my heart the most. After a lengthy silence, Chopin replied with emphasis: “I am glad, because I too like it the best, it is my dearest work”.’
Once again we are faced with a number of enigmas. Firstly, which of the ballades were Schumann and Chopin discussing? The first, in G minor, dedicated to Stockhausen? The second, in F major, had already been written at that time, and Chopin would dedicate it soon afterwards to Schumann. The edition, ‘à Monsieur Robert Schumann’, did not appear until 1840, as the work only acquired its ultimate form in 1839, in Majorca. In 1836, in Leipzig, Schumann heard its earlier version, which was different. And so everything suggests that the ballade closest to both Chopin and Schumann was the G minor. Also in Leipzig at that time, Chopin apparently confessed to Schumann that he was inspired to write his ballades by the ballads of Adam Mickiewicz. Schumann wrote expressly about this in his review of the F major Ballade.
And more questions arise. When did the moment of that initial inspiration from Mickiewicz’s poetry arise? And how deeply or extensively should that inspiration be understood?
Well, the Ballade in G minor shared the fate of the Scherzo in B minor: its provenance is not accurately documented. All we know is that it had been written by 1833 and was published three years later. A tradition confirmed by monographers links this work with Chopin’s sojourn in Vienna. The supposition is that it was sketched in the Austrian capital and possibly completed in Paris. Above all, however, the atmosphere, character and style of the G minor Ballade place it unquestionably closer to the B minor Scherzo and the first nocturnes and etudes than to the Rondo in E flat major, Variations in B flat major andGrand Duo Concertant. The Ballade has nothing in common with the ‘brilliant’ style to which Chopin returned during his early Paris years. It manifests pure romanticism, the first explosion of which in Chopin came during the two Warsaw-Vienna years between the autumn of 1829 and the autumn of 1831. That may be called Chopin’s period of Sturm und Drang.
It was during those two years that what was original, individual and distinctive in Chopin spoke through his music with great urgency and violence, expressing the composer’s inner world spontaneously and without constraint – a world of real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies. Life did not spare him such experiences and traumas in those years, be it in the sphere of patriotic or of intimate feelings.
As we are well aware, the appearance of the ballad in Central European culture has often been linked with the pre-Romantic movement of Sturm und Drang. More precisely, with the figures of Herder, as the theorist of that movement, Gottfried August Bürger, the author of the first ballad of the new sort, the famous ‘Lenore’, and then Schiller and Goethe, authors of ballads and romances, with Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’ to the fore. That was the path taken by Adam Mickiewicz, who published a volume of ballads and romances in 1822.
For everyone, the ballad was an epic work, in which what had been rejected in Classical high poetry now came to the fore: a world of extraordinary, inexplicable, mysterious, fantastical and irrational events inspired by the popular imagination. In Romantic poetry, the ballad became a ‘programmatic’ genre. It was here that the real met the surreal. Mickiewicz gave his own definition: ‘The ballad is a tale spun from the incidents of everyday (that is, real) life or from chivalrous stories, animated by the strangeness of the Romantic world, sung in a melancholy tone, in a serious style, simple and natural in its expressions’. And there is no doubt that in creating the first of his piano ballades, Chopin allowed himself to be inspired by just such a vision of this highly Romantic genre. What he produced was an epic work telling of something that once occurred, ‘animated by strangeness’, suffused with a ‘melancholy tone’, couched in a serious style, expressed in a natural way, and so closer to an instrumental song than to an elaborate aria.
From the very first notes of this Ballade, we are engulfed in a balladic aura. We sense that this music means to tell us something extraordinary and strange. The dissonant note e flat that closes the opening recitative does not augur a happy end. (Interestingly, in the German edition it was altered to the consonant note d.) At the same time, we sense that it will be a tale of domestic, rather than foreign, occurrences. The rubato of the opening bars is like an awakening from meditation, the extraction of something from one’s memory.
And the tale commences. Spun out in an exquisitely beautiful melody, melancholically nostalgic, rising and falling in a regularly undulating 6/4 metre (an inseparable component of the balladic tone), the tale slowly grows. A new theme (or rather motif) enters, and the situation takes on dramatic accents, as if what has passed has suddenly become present. And there ensues what must inevitably ensue in a musical balladic tale: a special theme appears (in E flat major), from this world or perhaps another world. Subtle at first… dreamlike, one might say.
This theme also has its development, its shadow, its inseparable complement. What happens later unfolds like a sonata allegro. The exposition is followed by a development section, in which the two themes, transferred to another tonal sphere (A minor and A major), undergo wholesale transformation and an episode with a new theme comes to the fore. Then comes a reprise, presenting the two themes in their proper keys, though in reverse order. And the whole thing is crowned with a dynamic, sparkling coda.
Yet speaking of the G minor Ballade in this way, we are entirely overlooking its balladic essence. After all, in this work a tale is being told. And its plot is subject to the laws of epic drama, not the rules of static form. We are drawn into a story that manifests itself before our eyes, only to withdraw a moment later into the distant world of past events. We are witness to extraordinary events that grow into tragic situations, witness to transformations (even metamorphoses): for example, when that subtle theme appears in a form that radiates power and might or when the main theme attains moments of ecstasy – appassionato.
One can hardly wonder that those interpreters with a soft spot for ‘programmatic’ thinking have been sorely tested by the mysteriousness of this balladic tale. Keys have been sought and tried out. Indeed, that has been done in relation to all four ballades. Yet all in vain, or at least without any sensible effect. None of Mickiewicz’s ballads have been successfully conjugated – barring suspicious procedures – with Chopin’s ballades. Attempts have been made to consider the G minor Ballade as an equivalent of the romantic-heroic tale told by Mickiewicz in Konrad Wallenrod. But those attempts must also be regarded as senseless and fruitless. The language of Chopin’s music is the language of algebra, so to speak, and not of arithmetic. It does not need any concrete values to be set beneath it. It inhabits the realm of feelings and moods, experiences and passions that are unalloyed, not embroiled in detail and anecdote.