- Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom
From the time of Frédéric Chopin's arrival in Paris in 1831 to today, his music has been hailed for being, above all else, distinctive. Schumann repeatedly voiced this impression, as when he writes in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik after first meeting Chopin in Leipzig in October of 1835: "Chopin was here, but only for a few hours which he spent in private circles. He plays just as he composes—uniquely" (cited and translated in Leon B. Plantinga, Schumann as Critic [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967], 229). That perceived distinctiveness encompasses Chopin's musical aesthetics. Where most pianist-composers in the 1830s and 1840s attached literary titles and programs to their compositions, Chopin shunned such associations. And where the most prominent composers of the day tried their hands at writing opera, Chopin, a passionate devotee of opera, did not.
The challenge, then, in writing a book that stylistically and culturally contextualizes Chopin's music is in preserving a sense of that music's singularity while teasing out its potential meanings, meanings suggested by the broader context in which that music was produced. In his lively and provocative monograph on Chopin's Second Ballade, op. 38, Jonathan Bellman understands this challenge: Chopin inaugurated the tradition of the piano ballade, and the Second Ballade is a bit of an outlier among the four he wrote. Central to understanding this particular ballade, therefore, is getting at what Chopin may have meant by the [End Page 342] "ballade" designation where the piano genre is concerned, and how this particular one behaves with respect to the formal contract invoked by this generic designation.
By speaking of a "contract," I mean to invoke the work of Jeffrey Kallberg, whose 1988 article on Chopin's Nocturne op. 15, no. 3 paved the way for a more calibrated consideration of piano genres chez Chopin, including this new work by Bellman (Jeffrey Kallberg, "The Rhetoric of Genre: Chopin's Nocturne in G Minor," Nineteenth-Century Music 11, no. 3 [Spring 1988]: 238–61). The trajectory of Bellman's book echoes that of Kallberg's article: a consideration of the work's idiosyncrasies vis-à-vis other works in the genre (chap. 1, "Two Versions, Two Keys, and 'Certain Poems of Mickiewicz' "), an excursion into literary theory (chap. 2, "Genesis of a Narrative Process"), an examination of previous works in the genre (chap. 3, "Hearing Konrad Wallenrod: The First Ballade, Op. 23"), a further consideration of the distinctive stylistic and formal characteristics of the given work (chap. 4, "Op. 38 and the Genre Issue"), a laying-out of the relevant political and cultural context (chap. 5, "The Polish Pilgrims and the Operatic Imperative"), and a political and cultural reading of the work's distinctive formal and stylistic characteristics (chap. 6, "Martyr dom and Exile: The Narrative of Chopin's F Major Ballade").
Unlike the genre of the piano nocturne, originated by John Field in the 1810s, the piano ballade is new with Chopin, and this has inspired various attempts to ascertain Chopin's generic model. Starting with Robert Schumann, commentators on the ballades have been most inclined to see a literary model, and link Chopin's ballades, generally and in particular, to the literary ballads of the famous Polish poet and Chopin contemporary, Adam Mickiewicz. Schumann heard Chopin play his first two ballades during his second visit to Leipzig, in September 1836. At the time, Schumann, writing in his diary, makes a point of saying that Chopin does not like his works being discussed ("Hört nicht gern über seine Werke sprechen"; diary entry for 12 Sep tember 1836, in Robert Schumann, Tagebücher: Band II, 1836–1854, ed. Gerd Nauhaus [Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1987], 25 and 455 n. 19). It is only five years later and thus at temporal and physical remove from Chopin that Schumann, writing in the 2 November 1841 issue of the Neue...