by Frédéric Chopin
Recommended Ages: 14+
Strike while Chopin is hot, I always say! And since I've been shouting up his Mazurkas, I also want to mention his Waltzes. The dance known in German as Walzer, and in French as Valse, became the fashionable rage of Vienna as far back as the early 1700s. Its distinctive features were a 3/4 rhythm, often supported by an "oom-pah-pah" bass line; a gliding, spinning motion by the dancers; and what scandalized the morals of the day, the innovation of requiring dance partners of the opposite sex to hold each other in a close embrace.
Composers like Johann Strauss I and his sons Johann II, Josef, and Eduard, contributed many orchestral waltzes to the dance-hall of their day—music that may now be heard in the concert hall, but that was originally intended to be danced to. All I have to say is "Blue Danube" and you're probably hearing one of their tunes in your head right now. The Waltz influenced many other styles of dance and remains, to this day, the bedrock of ballroom dancing throughout the world.
So, he didn't invent the Waltz (or Valse). Not even nearly! And he didn't introduce it anywhere that it wasn't already known and in fashion. But he created enduring art music based on it—to wit, this album of piano pieces, many of which are within the reach of a well-coordinated amateur pianist. With steady practice, all of them are more or less doable.
I first played a Chopin Waltz for a piano recital when I was of middle-school age. I still play them often, though not as much as the Mazurkas. There are two reasons for that. The less important reason is that I have to work a bit harder at them. More important is the fact that there are just fewer of them. While Chopin left us 51 "numbered" Mazurkas (and we saw some editions that include 56 or 57 of them!), there are only 20 "numbered" Waltzes by Chopin. Two of those are now considered spurious.1 And one of them, which bears no title except the tempo marking Sostenuto, is only counted as a Waltz by some authorities, but not by others. Willard Palmer, who edited the cheapo Alfred Edition of Chopin's "Waltzes (Complete)" that I play from, evidently falls in the latter camp, because his book only contains 17 Waltzes—and the way he numbers them is confusing, because the "official" numbering (listed here) puts them in a different order. So again, I'm going to ignore the numbering of the Waltzes and rely as much as possible on opus numbers and the like.
Chopin published eight of the Waltzes during his lifetime: two of them as separate opus numbers, and the rest in two sets of three Waltzes each. In the years immediately following his death in 1849, Chopin's friends published five more in two posthumous opus numbers. The other four authentic pieces, definitively titled Waltz or Valse, came to light by ones or twos between the 1860s and as recently as 1955. A few more are thought to exist somewhere, but whoever owns them isn't sharing—a situation that makes steam toot out of my ears when I think about it. Several more are known of but believed to be lost forever. But who knows? Many lost masterpieces (and Doctor Who episodes), never expected to be seen again, have come to light in recent years. The world may some day know the charm of another Chopin Waltz or two.
But for now, it's a grim fact: though they are valued at least as highly as his 50-odd Mazurkas, and on average they are longer pieces, Chopin's known Waltzes number only 17 or so. And more than half of them are of the "opus posthumous" persuasion. Luckily we won't see quite as many instances as in the Mazurkas of posthumous pieces that would have been better left unpublished. In spite of Palmer's editorial note opining that the posthumous Waltzes are of lower quality, owing to the fact that Chopin worked really hard to spruce up the ones that he intended to publish (as well as his habit of giving "dashed off" Waltzes as gifts to his girlfriends), the Chopin Waltz legacy is pretty solid. There are only two or three of them that I would rate as "not so hot." And the other good news is: This post won't be too long, since there aren't as many pieces to hash over!
Like several of Chopin's Mazurkas, this piece starts with a four-bar introduction of a single note repeated over and over. In this case, however, the accelerating crescendo of B-flats is a distinctive feature that causes ears around the world to perk up in recognition. Then commences the first of an embarrassment of melodies following each other in a rich, 10-page progression—a tune that belongs to what I have elsewhere described as Chopin's "spectacular register," and that has a subordinate theme in A-flat with a repeated-note motif. Episode 1 shifts to D-flat major and a smoothly soaring theme; it too has a subordinate idea in A-flat, with strongly accented rhythmic displacements. Episode 2, also in D-flat, has a hint of a hop in its step; its middle section (for in this piece, even the episodes have middle sections) is full of twittery grace notes and blithely dissonant chromatics. Then comes Episode 3(!) with a single period of gliding melody, preparing for a spectacular return of the introduction and a souped-up rearrangement of the opening theme and its stuttering subordinate tune. After a big climax brings the music to a halt, Chopin devotes two whole pages to a "big finish" coda full of reminiscences of themes heard throughout the piece. Frankly the music goes a bit crazy; though don't be deceived by the notation loco at measure 284 (it's only a courtesy reminder to play the right-hand part in the octave at which it is written). You'll know what I mean. And you may realize, when you play it or hear it, that you already know this piece as well as The Blue Danube.
Op. 34—3 Grandes Valses Brillantes:
No. 1 in A-flat major
After 16 bars of virtuosic flourishes by way of prologue, a cheerful theme kicks in with parallel sixths in the right hand. Connected to this is a passage full of arch-shaped arpeggios. After a repeat of this theme group comes another A-flat melody whose main rhythmic feature is an accented note tied across the barline. Rhythmic quirks continue to flood in, from groupings of 13 eighths to be squeezed into three beats, to a jaunty D-flat major melody full of chromatics and dotted rhythms. Chopin again spends 10 pages playing with all these ideas, and saves plenty of space for a dramatic coda.No. 2 in A minor
Noble and mournful, the first melody of this piece appears in an inner voice played by the left hand. Other themes seem to comment on this significant statement, the excess of their emotion bursting forth in groaning chromaticism, gasping hesitations, odd rhythmic groupings such as seven eighths to two quarter-note beats. A second main theme in A major adds poignancy rather than sunshine, especially when it turns into a minor-key variation of itself. The first time Section A returns, it omits the opening cello theme; but when it does appear after a reprise of Section B, we greet it like an old friend. And then, on page 6, when the piece is almost over, Chopin introduces a new melody for the left hand. After one more entrance of the opening theme, the piece comes to a low-key end.No. 3 in F major
The melody that grows out of the 16-bar intro is a kissing cousin of the famed Minute Waltz (about which, see below): a stream of rapid eighth-notes in a four-beat pattern that circles whimsically above the three-beat waltz template. A carefree second theme in B-flat relaxes the bustle a bit. Then there comes a page of even more laid-back melody, with plunging long notes alternating with trippy little grace-noted arpeggios. The return of the opening theme on page 4 signals that the end is at hand; but it is the third theme that finally rings in the closing chords.
Op. 42—Valse in A-flat major
A long trill ushers in a clever theme in which the right hand seems to be playing in 6/8 while the left hand plugs away in 3/4. A second theme features straightforward eighth-note runs rocketing into a high register and plunging back down. It is this theme that keeps coming back like a refrain after a series of quaint episodes. Around page 5, the texture calms down a lot, with a practically singable theme that relies on the expressive harmony for its effect. Only on page 7 does the hemiola theme return, only to be followed by reminiscences of the other ideas, solemn unison passages, a long rising chromatic run, and pages and pages of coda in which the second theme seems just about to carry away the prize when the hemiola theme gets the last word.
No. 1 in D-flat major
This is the so-called Minute Waltz, though I think the idea that it must be played as fast as humanly possible may exaggerate Chopin's intentions somewhat. Even so, I don't know that anyone has actually succeeded in performing it flawlessly in under a minute; so take these nicknames with a grain of salt. Again, part of the fun of this prelude is the four-note pattern that flies above the 3/4 Waltz pattern with a sort of 2:3 orbital resonance. The running eighths do step out for a breather while a secondary theme in longer note-values sells the emotional heart of the piece. Kevin had better be practicing his 4:3 cross-rhythms, though; not to mention 8:3 ones for the final downward rush.No. 2 in C-sharp minor
This piece is one of my favorites in this album. It isn't just the fact that I played this piece in a recital. It might have to do with my intuition that this was an especially congenial key to Chopin. There is just something warm, homey, and humane about this piece's main theme, so delicately tinged with sadness. Always appended to it is a somewhat faster passage of running eighths whose shape, for all its athleticism, adds a poignancy of its own. This is the part the comes back as a refrain, not only after the first theme but also, without it, after the middle section in which, not for the first time, Chopin shows his preference for flat keys by converting the parallel major of C-sharp into its enharmonic equivalent, D-flat. This tune is full of yearning, and once more, challenges the pianist to master tricky rhythmic groupings and cross-rhythms.No. 3 in A-flat major
This piece is one of several by Chopin that uses "wrong-note" chromatic effects to distort one's experience of dissonance and harmony, while expressing feelings so powerful that only by an act of genius could the cultured smoothness of a Waltz contain it. At the center of the piece is a "cello" tune for the left hand against a throbbing right-hand accompaniment, in the distant key of C major. When the main theme comes back, it carries its potential to destroy the tonal system so far that, at one crucial point, it modulates to the "wrong" key! The piece ends in a glittering shower of eighth-notes.
Op. 69—2 Valses published posthumously in 1852:
No. 1 in A-flat major
This piece immediately thwarts one's expectation that a "posthumous" work will be bland and unremarkable. Instead of the sort of "dominant, tonic, dominant, tonic" monotony we saw in the worst of Chopin's posthumous Mazurkas, we get a bass line sliding languidly downward beneath a melody so rich in chromatic dissonance and rhythmic variety that it will test the pianist to his limit. Again a bit of jumping seems to be added to the dance pattern in the subordinate theme, whose bright E-flat major contrasts strikingly with the piece's overall gloom. Section B has two melodic ideas of its own, one of which seems to be vamping aimlessly while the other climbs upward with urgent determination, only to find itself back at the vamping theme again and again. The opening theme finally returns, decorated by such touches as a rising stream of 13 eighth-notes within a two-beat span. Wow.No. 2 in B minor
Here is another movingly beautiful piece that frequently expresses pain through the deliberate deployment of "wrong notes." It also subtly varies its main theme, using a variety of interesting chromatic detours. The middle section feints toward a consoling B major, only to darken to a B minor variation of itself. One thing is clear above all: getting the notes right is only the tiniest part of playing this piece well. Delicacy of touch and sensitivity of expression will make it or break it.
No. 1 in G-flat major (six flats)
Sort of a toy waltz, this piece features a playful, tinkly melody in a super-high register of the keyboard. There are plenty of wide leaps, chromatic twists, and unusual grace-notes to make it a toy for grown-ups, though its harmony is no more adventurous than it needs to be. The second theme is even more "nothing special," suggesting that this may be one of the less finished pieces in this album. But it is fun to play!No. 2 in F minor
Here is another piece of elegiac lyricism, which to me seems to be in the same class as the best of Chopin's Waltzes. The B section, in A-flat major, comes back at the end, giving the piece the unusual form "ABA'B'."No. 3 in D-flat major
This is an unusually contrapuntal Waltz, with the right hand playing two lines of melody that share a chromatically inflected conversation. A secondary idea in the A section casts these two voices in a more homophonic role, like chords being strummed on a guitar. The B section, in G-flat major, again has two melodic ideas, one of them calm and gentle but with an undercurrent of emotion, the second (modulating back to D-flat) rather playful. The return to the A section is not written out, which is unusual in Chopin.2
Without Opus Number
Valse in A-flat major (published in 1902)
This is the Waltz that the current numbering identifies as "No. 16" but the Alfred Edition as "No. 14," for what it's worth. It is another Waltz in Chopin's athletic register, full of running sixteenth-notes from beginning to end, except for a bit more rhythmic variety in the brief central Trio. That rhythm, however, seems derivative of themes heard earlier in this album. It's a charming little virtuoso showpiece (mainly for the right hand), but otherwise nothing special.Walzer in E major (published in 1871-72)
By general consensus, this piece is numbered as "Waltz No. 15," and it bears the unique distinction of actually being titled in German rather than in French. Perhaps this shift of emphasis accounts for its Viennese flavor: a broad, popular, sentimental tune, sticking close to the 3/4 beat pattern and the expected harmonies, and only briefly relieved by any particularly pianistic figuration. It could almost have been written by a member of the Strauss family and only afterward arranged for the keyboard. But it falls very comfortably under the fingers!Valse in E minor (published in 1868)
Officially (now) listed as No. 14, though Alfred lists it as No. 16, this piece erupts dramatically from a low to a very high register, and its melody runs up and down the keyboard with a gravity-proof litheness equaled only by its expressive lyricism and stormy histrionics. The middle part is relatively calming, but the outer sections are simply thrilling—Chopin in top form!Valse in A minor (published in 1955)
No. 19 by the most recent numbering, No. 17 in my book, this three-page chit of a Waltz is both the last and the least representative of Chopin's work in this form. Like his posthumous A minor Mazurkas, it opens no particularly interesting vistas. It sets a deeply melancholic mood and sticks to it with doggedness unrelieved by any harmonic, structural, or pianistic innovations. With lyrics set to it, perhaps in some Eastern European language, it would probably be described as a "Romance" and might even become quite popular among people nostalgic for the old country. But it's a disappointing way to end an album in which Chopin so often seems to be pointing the way ahead toward ground that was still to be broken at the time of his death. Take it as an expression of your sadness at the unfinished work of this great creative artist, and you might find it answers very well.
1i.e., they weren't really written by Chopin.
1Instead, the B section ends with the notation D. C. al Fine, which saves trees I suppose—though it also means there is no specially written coda, no surprise twist at the end.