Views on the Polonaise-Fantasie

- by Olaf Eggestad

Table of contents:










Understanding and interpreting Chopin’s possibly ‘late style’ with op. 61 as case in point


Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.


Time past and time future

what might have been and what has been

point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot [2]


When preparing the Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61 for performance, one is also approaching one of allegedly least performative pieces by the super-pianist-composer Chopin. ‘Performative’ in the sense, that the outline of a score is indubitably and intimately intertwined with a performative practice, if not a performance practice. More than probably any other work by the composer, op. 61 seems liberated and independent from his performing persona. His pianist persona is however still there, as the work is scored for the piano and the piano only, and can be satisfactorily instantiated and realised solely on the piano. Its unique position is all the more noteworthy as Chopin simultaneously was writing pieces in still typically and undeniably performative genres, originating from either traditional folk musical, non-literal forms, as the Mazurkas, or from his own performing merits, above all the presumably unsurpassedly inspired late night raptures of improvisations in the midst of a small, selected circle of friends. By the way, with the genius-dandy Frédéric Chopin, everything was selected, and he thus embodies the classical music culture’s most fundamental, mandatory, self-sustaining and revered premise, in life as in art. [4]

Regarding Chopin [5] I understand – or launch – the concept of ‘late style’ to encapsulate both certain characteristics of a group of works, as well as a certain compositional practice, that is: way of composing, a method. As with several other (at least significantly original) composers of the 19th century, one may trace the very Romantic split inwardly in their production, the one coined by Raphael Georg Kiesewetter already in 1834 as the «Rossini and Beethoven style», respectively. [6] That is: one designated and directed towards a performance, the stage, and the other associated with the motivic and developmental work prototypically inherent in pieces by Beethoven. Scores of the first category are merely sketches for the performer, a manual for a stage presentation; in the second the scores are tantamount to philosophical documents subject to exegesis as texts. [7] Although the Mazurkas are inextricably tied to an oral tradition of the rural Poland, the «Rossini style» with Chopin simply, and perhaps as expected, manifests itself more unambiguously in operatically influenced pieces, not least imprinted by Italian opera’s la grande melodia as well as its rubati, improvisations and embellishments. As we know, Chopin did not encounter Italian opera and mastersingers only after his arrival in Paris, although he famously attended (as far as he had a chance to) every opera premiere in the Romantic capitol. Anything but a musical province, he could already from childhood on hear most of them in the city of Warsaw. For the rest of his life he kept track of all the great singers of the time, the Italian virtuosi, and enjoyed to share, or maybe even display, his detailed, precise and exact knowledge and judgement about their splendours as well as flaws. Supreme examples of «Rossini style» or off-springs of a such with Chopin, especially in the fashion of the contemporary elegant and light bel canto, are of course the Nocturnes, but even more clearly and unveiled in the early larger works, before his emigration, as in both of the concerti and the virtuoso cantilena style pieces. On the other hand, he constricts himself from implementing more typically operatic staging and role acting in his works, as we find them in Liszt, e.g. in his piano concerti. Liszt’s E flat major concerto is little less than a concise opera with a muted libretto. 

The «Beethoven style» also appears relatively early in Chopin’s production, and can – surely understood more as a contrasting principle to Rossini than something related to many of the more specific properties of Beethoven’s œuvre [8] – be distinctly identified e.g. in the Preludes op. 28, and in fact, and maybe paradoxically, in the two series of Etudes opp. 10 and 25. These are prominently and sui generis directed towards not only performance, but development of technique: the industrial means, tools and technology of performance. On the other hand, they are far from being recipes for stage events, and bear witness to a strong, relentless and almost ascetically orientated structural awareness with the young composer. Beyond reasonable doubt the Etudes also should be understood as compositional studies; however not en route from the apprentice to the full-fledged composer – which he was, long since. But as precision instruments of navigation useful for voyages towards unknown continents.

«Beethoven style», that is, a compositional method and strategy of a predominantly constructional bend, is par excellence a contrapuntal style with Chopin – notwithstanding his almost Wagnerian harmonic refinement, which is arguably more horizontally than vertically driven. His interest and engagement in counterpoint reached an apex at the beginning of the 1840s, where he sought new inspiration by once again plunging into the fugues of Bach, and, besides, the teachings of Cherubini. Importantly, and in this context too often neglected, J. S. Bach forms a significant impulse also of a performative kind for Chopin: Das wohltemperiertes Klavier was practised daily by the composer – and even more intensively prior to public performances (although he never included Bach in his concert repertoire). In other words, pianistic performativity with Chopin is not simply equivalent to lush, improvisatory virtuoso salon style or decorated Italian opera arias only; [9] it also implies the naked, disciplined and unforgiving art of fugue playing. 

His interest for counterpoint and fugue as principles of composition is, if not before, verified by his documented conversations with the painter and friend Eugène Délacroix. Chopin gives a mini-lecture for Délacroix where appoints the fugue to be «the pure logic of music» and postulates, that «knowledge and skills in fuga is to recognise the element of rationality and necessary consequence, which is imp [10] erative to the art of music.» Délacroix is mesmerised by Chopin’s «scientific way of treating and explaining artistic subjects», and praises highly these obvious connections between art and science – when such are envisaged by «a man like Chopin.» The gulf between the two is then bridged, «rationality is crowned by genius» – this is how he sees his friend and how his art comes about. 

But Beethovenianism with Chopin also implies an acute interest for motivic work, strands and relationships, structural identity, variation and coherence – down to the utmost detail. Besides, this method definitely touches upon certain moral issues of work and discipline, or a kind of textual zealousness we most of all are used to associate with the great Viennese composer. [11] Chopin obviously got many of his ideas from improvising, but for all of the works mentioned here, his working process was slow and meticulous. He was chiseling and polishing over and over. An apparently glaring contrast to claims of an improvisatory method is his statements in the letters to Julian Fontana from Nohant in August 1841. He writes, «Tomorrow you will receive the Nocturnes [op.48], and by the end of the week the Ballade [op. 47] and the Fantasia [op.49]; I cannot polish them enough[12]


The very term ‘late style’ is modernistic and used iconically about Beethoven’s third period (and habitually including both phases of it), with the last five piano sonatas, the 9th Symphony, the Missa Solemnis and the «Galitzin Quartets» as centrepieces. This creates a certain precedence as to how the term should be interpreted, and has since been associated with a homeless style, something displaced or far ahead of its time, profanely apocalyptic, aesthetically fragmentary or a meta-style, that thematises and comments on both style phenomena, and the phenomenon and mandates of art per se. But the term has proved contagious, and the application of the concept of ‘late style’ has, especially via Edward Said’s Neo-Adornism, [13] been spread benevolently across all art forms and been generously attached to widely different expressions and manifestations, from Michelangelo and El Greco via Goethe to Verdi and J. M. W. Turner, to mention but a few. In their highly critical article «Late Style(s): The Ageism of the Singular», Linda and Michael Hutcheon (with support from Gordon McMullan [14] and others) attack the entire ‘late style’ [15] discourse as being chiefly a quasi-mythological construct where the devotees appreciate selected pieces of art within a set of predetermined parameters. Whether one appreciates these works or rather consider them to be e.g. results of deteriorating abilities, or mere eccentricities at the best, depends on aesthetic preferences, according to Hutcheon. The article’s approach and position is predominantly psychological and biological-medical, and it harvests its arguments from these fields. Regarding aesthetics and the intrinsic qualities of the actual works, its discussion is much less convincing, or obsolete. In fact, late style is not very much concerned with age or ageing per se. Beethoven wrote his last works as a mature man, not as a geriatric. And what we find to be late style characteristics, or where the notion of late style might serve as an explanatory and descriptive model, in some works of Chopin, can positively not be an offspring of high age. The man was in his mid thirties. However, it is not wrong to say that aesthetic orientations of the kind I describe here, are quite often imbued or accompanied by premonitions of death or perishability. Which does not automatically entail that the artist’s competence and mental abilities are crumbling. As Adorno speaks of interesting examples of «late works without late style», [16] we may for Chopin rightly talk about «late style without high age». Maybe less enigmatic than Adorno’s case with Ludwig van Beethoven, but just as interesting. 

It may also be objected rather self-evidently, from a chronological point of view, that what I, if so provisionally, call late style with Chopin, is most probably just a beginning of a second, or a middle period. But this does not indicate or point to more than any shift in style or orientation. My arguments for, or more boldly, determination of, a late style are grounded in recognition of a specific blend and web of aesthetical ingredients. 

In Chopin’s production, there is a small leap in time after the last Ballade op. 54 to a cluster of opuses listed in his letter to Leipzig in 1846, starting with the Barcarolle op. 60 in Chopin’s supposedly favourite key, F-sharp major (or G-flat major – chiefly due to the fact that it lied so well in his hand, so much for embodiment), that might be said more surely to exemplify something like a late style of Chopin’s. Behind him are a series of pieces that, in the method of writing or compositional approach, are related. In addition to the last two Ballades, the Fantaisie op. 49, the fourth Scherzo in E major, the B minor Sonata and the Berceuse op. 57 belong to the same herd and breed. In between there were several new groups of Nocturnes and Mazurkas. However, in the following two or three years there is much that shows that Chopin was living through a sort of creative crisis, where composition work was going unusually slowly. Chopin the perfectionist allowed nothing to leave him unless it met his sky-high demand for quality, but that does not mean that he could not also compose easily. The Prelude op. 45 was written down in one single spell, and the same applies to several other shorter works. But from autumn 1844 he complains about a certain stagnation, or that he is not happy with what he is creating. According to G. Sand he called what he did «detestable» and «miserable», and a letter home to Warsaw 20 July 1845 shows signs of idleness, distraction and discomfort. He confides that he does not play much, and that this is the fourth time he sits down to finish the letter. It obviously feels somewhat invigorating for him to inform his family that, after all, the B minor sonata and the Berceuse are now out in print, and that the pieces are maybe not too difficult for his older sister Ludwika to play. He evidently recognises the need of another renewal, or to conquer less familiar terrains, overcome new barriers. Or he is teeming with something that still has not found its language.

There are reasons for claiming that already his first Ballade op. 23, psychologically and structurally, is a burgeoning late style, or forms the pathway to it. A wedge, that is enriched by studies of counterpoint and is finally pushed in, breaking open his aesthetic universe in the middle of the 40s. The piece is heroic-pessimistic, urged by a sense of loss and forebodings about his ill-fated homeland, having just been left behind. The composer is throughout his life apparently governed by disparate affinities and creative drives, not to say rules. In pressured and changing times, it is as if he makes contact with aesthetically deep structures that at times he truly experienced as his ‘true path’ – a concurrence with his aesthetic conscience. As suggested above, the technique applied in op. 23 can also be seen in the light of his innovations in the two collections of Etudes, opp. 10 and 25, which chronologically frame its origin, and the «Revolutionary Etude» is perhaps a part of the same narrative as the Ballade. A similarly concentrated energy also characterises several of the Preludes op. 28, but Chopin’s new sense of form appears to break through in op. 23.

After the mid-40s, there are hints to believe that Chopin identifies himself to a considerable degree with the work of a mathematician or a scientist and associates this especially with a contrapuntal technique that now asserts itself more than ever, and that this is precisely an expression of the most genuine and deep principles («eternal principles», cf. the conversation with Delacroix), and therefore also the most enduring and (most universally) valid. [17] In the meantime he had given birth to the Barcarolle op. 60, the Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61 and two Nocturnes, op. 62, as well as the Cello Sonata op. 65.

The Barcarolle is a superb demonstration of Chopin’s talent to unfold an apparently inexhaustible compositional imagination within a strict framework. The piece also stands out in the way that it is homogenous in its basic character – given through the rolling 12/8 rhythm – but at the same time full of surprising episodes and wide-ranging modulations. Typical polyphonic techniques such as canon and stretto are made use of, in accordance with accepted practice, particularly in the concluding section, and the harmony is riddled with chromaticism, as in the F minor Ballade. The Barcarolle is performatively related to the following Polonaise-Fantaisie: Both pieces are notoriously hard to present effectively and convincingly, although for slightly different, or in fact partly opposite, reasons.

One may ask whether Chopin with op. 60 has yet reached the final or possibly second phase of his late style. It depends on the criteria. But when we arrive at the Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61, one is unequivocally dealing with a work, which, in quite a different dimension and in quite a different way from its predecessors, fills the criteria of the established (and Modernisticly inspired) idea of late style. The piece has an up until then unheard polynomial narrative structure, although Chopin experimented with the polonaise form in both opp. 44 and 53 (as early as the F-sharp minor Polonaise he was in doubt about whether he should call it Polonaise or Fantaisie). In particular it is the middle sections of these, which are irregular and where one sees a desire to blend the genres. Nevertheless one may speak of an overall ternary form, ABA (an extended Lied-schema – as with a majority of Chopin’s compositions, including the Etudes). Op. 61 abandons it; the piece may rather be regarded as a broadened B section where elements of A are pressed in – thus twisted, with the inside out. At first hearing the work is quickly perceived as formless and disjointed, or at any rate rhapsodic. The different sections or segments – to which I will return more in detail below – can loosely be defined as an improvisatory style, impro-polonaise, polonaise, ballade-polonaise, mazurka-ballade etc., but the identities are ambiguous. A particular trait in Chopin’s late style as expressed here is his desire to broaden and lengthen unstable sequences – and on several levels. Likewise he creates expectations that are not fulfilled and cultivates the fragmentary. In other words it is a work that makes itself, the music, and terms of style or genre the subject of debate – or on the whole makes the art’s ability for completion problematic. 

The language is, however, stripped down to essentials, and op. 61 is in truth not only one of the most unadorned pieces Chopin ever wrote, but also one of the most consistent. To discover this one ought to follow Chopin’s own advice about going to the analysis: «Any work selected for study should be carefully analysed for its formal structure, as well as for the feelings and psychological processes which it evokes.» [18] Op. 61 can at first glance appear as a sprawling, chaotic patchwork; it is definitely an ‘impure text’. But it is also translucent. A conspicuous interplay between unveiling and concealing, disclosing and bewildering is here maintained as his aesthetic strategy. The C-flat of the opening (enharmonic with B natural) instead of C as the third of the chord of A-flat, forms a gateway to understanding the harmonic development of the whole work. The intervals and small set motifs that make up the original cells in several of the Ballades, most obviously in the third, also form the building blocks here: third, fourth, second (plus the sixth). In variable order. This is so striking that one may speculate whether behind, or as a basis for most of the opuses mentioned of above, there lies an Urstück. Which – in so far as Chopin is in touch with this aim – could only manifest itself in ever new aspects and individual works.

It is fair to assert, then, that the Polonaise-Fantaisie in particular, is «Beethovenian.» And even late style Beethovenian; abstract, austere. In this sense it is also open-ended, by virtue of having the quality of the unfinished. This does not contradict the work’s superb structural coherence; the presence of the unfinished is more attached to its predilection for the unstable and the fragmentary, its many contrasting moods and genres and the joints and tricky transitions between them. The examples are numerous: Already the opening chords and quasi arpeggios are left with question marks; then comes the first intervention of the polonaise, and likewise a foreboding of the work’s main theme as well some of its conflicts, ending in nothing (b. 5-6); shortly thereafter at the introduction of the polonaise ordinaire (b. 21-22) – although it can be questioned whether it is (see below). The transitory pains and ambiguities are often augmented and extended, as in the double-third passage (b. 52-55), and of course the famous unhinged, immanently polyphonic semiquaver combination of minor seconds and octaves introducing the B major middle section, which again are preceded by unbearably insisting and struggling minor sevenths (b. 128-144). Eventually we are left weightless and directionless at the non-gravitation point before the return into the atmosphere, as it were, – that is, before we are sucked into the maelstrom of the coda (b. 221-225). 

If the works of late style are leaking subjectivity through their fractures, cracks and fissures (freely after Adorno), op. 61 testifies to a lot of subjectivity. The piece has globally speaking got its point of the absolute zero (b. 180), where everything just seems to stop or freeze, or where the known concepts of romantic dramaturgy are suspended. This also, interestingly, if not decisively, coincides with the nombre d’or (golden section, here calculated just by bar numbers, not by e.g. musical or expressive weight or density). This bridge from the B major middle section to retrospect polonaise fragments, first in G sharp minor, forms the Polonaise-Fantaisie’s definite concave focus, its negative, formal accent and caesura; here it turns its inside out: 

Die Zäsuren aber, das jähe Abbrechen, […] sind jene Augenblicke des Ausbruchs; das Werk schweigt, wenn es verlassen wird, und kehrt seine Höhlung nach außen. Dann erst fügt das nächste Bruchstück sich an, vom Befehl der ausbrechenden Subjektivität an seine Stelle gebannt und dem voraufgehenden auf Gedeih und Verderb verschworen; denn das Geheimnis ist zwischen ihnen, und anders läßt es sich nicht beschwören als in der Figur, die sei mitsammen bilden. [19]

Op. 61 may superficially seem deconstructionist by virtue of its fragmentary or heteroglossic character. But its real deconstructionist feature is its watching from aside, its self-critical strategies. Also in this it shows to be Beethovenian, as we may find this quality even in early works of the Viennese composer. Kramer points to the emphatic difference between Mendelssohn’s «Spring Song» and the violin sonata by Beethoven also dubbed «Spring» (Op. 24). [20] The first character piece depicts and epitomises the bourgeois garden, content and complacent within its own limits, whereas the sonata immediately after the idyllic and harmonious opening phrases, chivalrously handed over to the piano by the violin, starts questioning, even doubting, itself. The work simply instigates and enters a «Spring sonata discourse». The same with the Polonaise-Fantaisie: It initiates – even in the Foucaultian sense – a discourse of its own, and on its own and late style’s behalf. Its statements oscillate triangularly between declarations, negations and reflections.  

Last, but not least, the historical location of the Polonaise-Fantaisie is lacking neither actual importance nor symbolic poise. And it is a historical portrait with a double exposure. Firstly, op. 61 was written and published close to the very middle of the century, where we experience a noticeable shift in ideals and attitudes in social as well as cultural life. As we have seen, Chopin testifies to the shift himself, in his fascination for natural sciences. Op. 61 might be seen as a transitory piece, or rightfully homeless. At least we have so far provided it a lodging in the paradigm of homelessness of late style. But maybe it doesn’t even belong there. Slightly melodramatic we could claim that it is caught up in the abyss between the poetic and the positivist half of the 19th century. [21] Somehow, then, it suggests a counter-alternative to the Wagnerian trajectory towards phantasmagoria. Had Chopin lived on, we might have seen the dawn of a «realistic Romanticism», increasingly and unbashfully embracing the mindset of the sciences – although a composer like Brahms to some extent, and in his own fashion, took on the assignment. Hence, the poetry of the op. 61 is removed and indirect, of another kind – and if not of another world, probably of another style. Performers are often searching for it, and just as often they look for it in the wrong places. That is, it is not in family with the early century’s poetic idioms as we find them in miniatures and charming character pieces, beautiful slow movements and ravishing melodies, lush sound and lyrical orchestration, or in Lieder. It is impalpable, ambiguous and somehow barren; sometimes it appears with a strangely acrid after-taste, and frequently it is experienced as a dream or a memory, as a witness to something that has already been, like rubbles of poetry, memorials of bygone beauty. 

This leads to the second and more private exposure of the historical portrait, and also to a final argument for the presence of late style. «The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. […] In my end is my beginning,» says T. S. Eliot in his arguably late style cyclic poem Four Quartets. Also the Polonaise-Fantaisie is cyclic in terms of biography and artistic merits. It consummates a journey and a generic development starting with a feeble compositional attempt of an unusually gifted seven years old boy in Warsaw: A little polonaise in G minor.


«There is but one school: The German,» Frédéric Chopin once remarked, primarily with reference to various styles of playing – but probably also education, or teaching of piano playing. [22] No doubt, his line was, as usual with him, communicating a multilayered message, and not unlikely of a subtly sarcastic kind. Certainly he pointed to some aesthetical preferences and priorities and pedagogical methods, but just as much that the Germans tended to treat any musical, artistic and performance-related subjects in a systematic (or negatively, schematic) way, that is: scholarly.  Whether op. 61 is predominantly Beethovenian or not, let us proceed in a Teutonic manner. After having assumed on a general basis that op. 61 is situated at the core of the literal and textual Chopin, the editorial issues come afore. As for the first editions and autographs, these are discussed exhaustively in Henle’s text critical Urtext edition from 1970. [23] To construct a complete edition (as Henle aspires at), one needs to lean on both of these first publications as well as on Chopin’s manuscripts. Of particular interest is the way he corrected the Paris edition (Schlesinger/Brandus) before the work travelled on to Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig (although they were out for sale almost simultaneously). From Brandus he would habitually ask for two proofs, but never from Breitkopf. [24] Obviously, he would like to consider the German edition as final. Maybe he then had a sense of the work having left him for good, – abroad and beyond control, cf. «I declare that I have ceded this property to the said firm for all times and for all countries including Russia and excepting France and England.» [25] The corrections give us an idea of Chopin’s relationship to both composing and notation, and what emphasis he attached to (the exactitude of) expression signs and articulation etc. Some of his corrections are of wide-reaching importance, like the placement of the hairpins (crescendo and decrescendo signs) for the two seemingly identical passages, although in different keys, in b. 92–93 and 97–98, respectively. The discrepancy occurs in the last of these couple of bars. In the Paris edition it says diminuendo (later replaced by a hairpin) in the first passage, and this is simply just replicated in the second. Whereas in the Leipzig edition, they are different: In the latter it shows a crescendo towards the top and the downbeat (which also makes it an appoggiatura). Leipzig, and Paris:

By contrast, b. 94-101 Leipzig:

Curiously, but perhaps not all too surprisingly, Mikuli (1894) sticks to the German edition, while Cortot (1939) reiterates the – I would say obvious – insufficiencies or mistakes of the first French. At first glance one might just suspect it to be about doing things differently, for the sake of variation. But it’s plausibly more to it than that. Harmonically we are arriving at the main key with a 7th on the downbeat in b. 98. Then the motif on the small climax on the high-tone is the falling second, which is of crucial significance for the whole piece. If one misses that one, much of the structure will get lost. And here it prophesies something new, a turn, a new sequence of actions, first to be immediately caught up by the main theme on the third beat – as an augmentation of the semiquavers. Whereas this is a rhetorical change pointing to a structural unit, we have an example in the coda, where a change of notes forms a generic-rhetorical message. First the Paris edition, where the chords in the left hand consistently join the right hand figure only on the second beat:

In the Leipzig edition, however, the last two times, they join in already on the third triplet quaver (notated as the fourth semiquaver):

The effect in the latter is that the permeating, agitated rhythm (to a large extent dependent on how it is performed) becomes slightly syncopated and gradually distorted, as the beat is anticipated. [26] Probably one should stress the semiquaver increasingly the second and third time – and further on in every similar figure after the last time. The fact that the bar (or extended to two bars the last time, when the dominant chord is accordingly prolonged) is enveloped in one single pedal underpins this priority. Thus the Polonaise character is blurred and ultimately dissolved, the piece falls back into the Fantaisie and ends with a destabilising pianissimo trill on the keynote, followed by two lonely, whispering chords, – and then suddenly is torn off and concluded by a fortissimo, victorious – or shouting – A flat major (see also in table below). The very last chord is maybe the most transitory point of the entire piece, as if it tries to pave the way into an afterlife, tear down the thresholds between life and death – or, open the gates into a new style, an after-style, as it were.  

In preparing performances of Chopin’s late style (still considered a continuously useful hypothesis), a number of questions arise, with regard to the signs and hints in the structure of the pieces, to the presumed traditionally established performance practice protocol of Chopin’s oeuvre (admittedly, hypothesis no. 2), and of course every single performer’s personal ideas and choices – as a matter of a possible extended freedom, and a challenge, if not a request, to apply a fantasy and an intuition of another brand, as it were. Are our concepts of the conventionally Chopinesque valid here? Of his aesthetics, drawing heavily on the phraseological models of Italian la grande melodia, operatic embellishments, salon virtuoso piano culture (certainly improved drastically by virtue of Chopin’s genius), urban elegance, [27] yet never-heard-of but still not-at-all-rude harmonic and formal inventions – and his characteristic Mozartian transparency and ambiguous lightness? Chopin was – generally speaking, and obviously as a performer and dandy alike – constantly concerned with the phenomenon and imperative of taste. In this he reveals himself to be a true classicist, or even someone who felt more at home in the 18th than the 19th century – a bias poignantly confirmed by his preferences within visual arts (where he worshipped El Greco and Spanish classicists, and did in fact not value highly his friend Délacroix’ paintings – which he found violent and untamed). [28] Does the imperative of taste apply here? – or if taste, of which fashion? Does anything like a late-style-style of performance exist, or is it worth while contemplating if this by certain criteria can be established, something of a «homeless style, something displaced or far ahead of its time, something profanely apocalyptic, aesthetically fragmentary or a meta-style, that thematises and comments on both style phenomena, and the phenomenon and mandates of art per se…»-style of performance? 

On one hand, then, the very characteristics of late style – taken at face value – give clues to a performer, possibly encouraging multi-genreness, the open-ended, incomplete and fragmentary etc. – whatever this implies or how it is obtained in sounding practice. Thus the style or orientation can be seen as a performative and not only an aesthetical pamphlet, or not solely as messages from an artistic and compositional ‘elsewhere’, in this case feeding the performers with the formidable task of reconnecting these messages to the safe and well-known realms of what we are used to consider as mainstream Chopin. Or, – should it? 

Following Benjamin’s metaphysics and Messianism of artworks, one may indulge in the notion, that every period favours a certain repertoire of misconceptions about a work. These are time-specific and historical «through and through», but nevertheless penetrative with regard to the artwork’s potential content, as all (great) works of art unfolds ever new aspects and expressive qualities down across history. Art works feed on history. In other words, on the presupposition that the misconceptions are both reflective and educated, they will also show productive. Now, if a late style is homeless, it is in fact relevant to ask the historically relativising question, which performance style or even performance practice that is most apt to unveil and unfold a specific late style musical work’s potentials and secrets, – no matter from which year in history the work and the performance style originates. A consequence of this approach or attitude is to hold the (profoundly modern, but even more postmodern) position that to draw on either a purely structural approach, or HIP, alone, or to trust a performance tradition that indisputably comes historically and genealogically closer to Chopin than others, is not sufficient. Among the recorded interpreters of the piece, Cortot is the sole and authentic example of one who had presumably direct access to the composer’s aesthetic ideals, instructions and playing style. Cortot’s teacher Émile Decombes (1829–1912) was Chopin’s last pupil. But still then, Cortot is not necessarily the ideal performer of all of Chopin’s works, and maybe particularly not so, of the Polonaise-Fantaisie. It is also imagineable, that even various styles of performances can be applied in contrasting sections of the work.

Apparently then, one might conclude, that for the performer everything and any style is available, possible, legitimate or permitted, in and for op. 61. Simply an interpretive asylum where constrictions and scholarly criteria are, for once, nullified. But this is to twist the matter. On the contrary, and maybe surprisingly; upon listening to a number of recordings, op. 61 shows to be a litmus paper for several performance practice divides, priorities and inclinations – both on a collective and an individual level.

Back home in the score, I concur with Susan Bradshaw’s statement from the now (musicologically speaking) bygone 80s, upon advocating what is dubbed ‘The Boulez syndrome’, saying that 

[…] any notational ambiguities are at least of the composer’s own making, so leaving no doubt that ‘editorial’ responsibility for their interpretative unravelling is being handed direct to the performer. Which brings us full circle to a point where we can perhaps begin to trust the evidence of what we see as the only reliable starting point for what will eventually be heard. [29]

Notwithstanding all the naiveté of the old-timers’ Texttreue and all the insufficiencies, inadequacies, relativities and fallibilities of the musical score; [30] still today, when the status of the text in music is in unprecedented decline, I profess accuracy and faithfulness to the musical text, understood as a commanding, responsible, co-creative and observantly examining awareness – not as an act of submissive obedience. Research today has given us much more than the score for being taken into account when outlining performances, and with reference to the continuous and comprehensive research on sounding evidences, we might even say that we’ve got better ears nowadays than 30 years ago. But if we hold that the score is not reliable and sufficient material for the complete conception of a work and its audible instantiation, one might still recognise it as the only stable thing we’ve got, and thus as a reliable «starting point». Although representing and giving hints about something that is not at all stable, but highly elusive: the music as sound.

With op. 61, there is inevitably a text to be interpreted. The textual affinity of op. 61 is arguably self-declared and self-asserted. By the text itself, it is a pronounced textual work. In other words, upon examining the score in unrelenting detail, one gradually discovers how tightly the piece is knit together. And how it grows out from just a few cells, some distinct intervals and interval configurations – and that the key to make it come across to a large extent must be attached to and dependent on the discovery, and explication, of these. As advised by Chopin himself, an analytical approach with the performer will not subdue the contents of his works, but on the contrary, be the first stage to bring them to life. Bradshaw has a vision of the same, which is hopefully not yet outdated: «For it is by adopting the stance of an analytically observant performer that I hope to discover whether it may perhaps be possible to begin to narrow the great divide between written analysis (necessarily conceived before or after the musical event) and time-defying performance.» [31]

The first step towards a more systematic approach to the interpretive choices in the work, is to make an overall distinction between a structural and a rhetorical level. That is roughly to say, what is written and indicated by pitches, and what is (partly instructed) to be spoken out (pronuntiatio). Kramer claims that we fool ourselves if we think of structure in music as something static. [32] Which of course is ultimately true, but not initially. Just as much as no musical person will read a score without imagining the text sound, just as much is it a delusion to think of structure as something that can not rewardingly be studied – as stable text. As the structural particularities and consequently the specific identity of op. 61 will reveal by analysis, the rhetorical level can to some extent be identified with genres – besides everything that generally has to do with articulation, phrasing, declamatory qualities, and expression (dynamics, sound, crescendi and diminuendi – the work’s ebb and flow).

Most musical indications for the Polonaise-Fantaisie, then, can be deduced intrinsically, from the text, and certainly those of structure. But not all of the rhetorical points are elucidated via the score alone. There are also other texts to be examined, macro-texts, if you like, or ‘text’ as in ‘culture’, according to Derrida and other post-structuralists. I said that rhetorics for a great deal were about genres in plural, but prior to them we face the question of genre in singular. Before one note is hit – in fact, already by observing the front page, a rhetorical issue of major importance springs to the eyes. The title of the piece addresses both general and specific performative questions related to Chopin’s œuvre, to genre, and surely to how the genre of Polonaise is treated – subsidiary distorted – in the Polonaise-Fantaisie. In other words, before we start looking into the structure of op. 61, it should for instance be stated that the Polonaise forms the counter-piece, not to say antagonism, to the Mazurka in Chopin’s musically articulated patriotism. The Mazurkas testify to a deeply rooted Polish sentiment with the composer, propelled among other things by early and formative experiences with folk music in the rural countryside of his homeland, whereas the Polonaises are primarily related to the Waltzes, the epitome of the Parisian city-life under Louis Philippe. The Polonaise is urban. In the next turn it is also about social classes. Chopin was sorrowful about the fate of his country, but he was an elitist who neither associated with nor paid too much attention to the ragged soldier or the poor workers of Poland. His circle in Paris counted princes and princesses (notably the Czartoryskis), dukes and duchesses, and as late as in 1848, his letters to his family and others from Edinburgh and Scotland are almost perversely packed with lists of titles and genealogy of named prominences. [33] In short, Chopin enjoyed and cared about being surrounded by aristocrats, – of either birth, money, talent or power (that is, political influence). His letter about his upcoming concert in Paris in February 1848 tells it all:

Pleyel, Perthuis, Leo and Albrecht have persuaded me to give a concert. All places have been sold out for a week. I shall give it in the Pleyel salon on the 16th of this month. Only 300 tickets, at 20 fr. 

I shall have the fashionable world of Paris. The King has taken 10, the queen 10, the duchess of Orleans 10, the duke of Montpensier 10, though the court is in mourning and none of them will come. They want to attend a second concert, which I probably shall not give, for even this one bores me. [34]

The letter, apt to reveal – or betray – his social attitudes, will also provide a hint about stylistic priorities while performing (at least certain segments of) his music. The element of elegance never left Chopin, and is hardly absent from anything he wrote. Being much more than a socio-psychological digression, then, I in fact believe elegance to be a guiding star when approaching most of his works, and the Waltzes and Polonaises in particular. The basic sentiment of the Polonaises is the patriotism and nationalism of the privileged. It is coloured by pride, nostalgia and a romantic, at times lofty, heroism. This gives clues to some stylistic features, which are to be understood as neither superficial nor bereft of significant content per se, but still primarily as keys and pathways to the conceptions and rhetorics of the artwork. — Is elegance also appropriate and legitimate as a guiding star for a late style piece as Polonaise-Fantaisie? Probably, yes. Insofar it is a Polonaise (remember that Chopin was wavering between the titles Polonaise, Fantaisie and Polonaise-Fantaisie. Still, in the letter to the publisher, he obviously doesn’t mind calling it simply a Polonaise). Otherwise the performer is in danger of contradicting the work from the very beginning, and he will as interpreter trip over his own feet. Then, what is elegance in music, and how should it imprint the renditions of the op. 61? First of all: A Polonaise, like the Waltz, is a dance. It must swing and keep up a certain pace. Then the genre of the Polonaise is not the popular or improvised or frivolous dance, but a controlled, stately, dignified, disciplined and still, in a particular sense, understated one – afforded by social arrogance (or naiveté, cf. the hallmark of the upper class is the ignorance of classes). The Polonaise is a dance inhibited with power – or superiority, hence its slightly march-like character. Its somewhat majestically effortless elegance emerges from the absence of need to struggle or pretend. Within this dance-induced paradigm of elegance, budding from power, hesitation doesn’t really belong; it is a foreign or unwelcome element or value. Dream, conflict, doubt, fright (including that of losing property and privileges) and difficult choices and decisions are legitimate, – however hardly the state of being reluctant. Down on the executive detail level, performing a Polonaise can be extrapolated as the predominant significance of impetus, tempo, pulse and pace, maintaining the correct proportions of downbeat emphasises and generally balancing carefully the beat and stress hierarchies of the bars and phrases, – otherwise sufficiently powerful dynamics and contrast of dynamics.


By his own way of performing (dealt with more exhaustively below), Chopin guides us to certain priorities. Quite a few point to, or converge in, rhetorics of form and the imperative of coherence. This might be acutely useful for our encounters with the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Its rhetorics also encompasses articulation of form, the establishing (in tonal music) of a relief in sound where the harmonic strategies become audible, and then about explicating the actual and specific structural levels locally, not least by stratifying them. For op. 61, the harmonic strategies may be clarified in this manner:

In concurrence with the diagram, a schematic overview related to form might appear like this:

In the modified Schenker diagram we immediately spot at least a couple of features as striking: i) The double lines and corresponding form fields between them, in foreign and seemingly remote keys, and where especially the Cb/B major from the opening chord is prominent, and ii) by the key indications (Roman figures; tonal levels and central pitches) we observe the large number, length and scope of the unstable zones, given by the comparatively few stretches in and on an undisguised, obvious and stable main key (Ab). And Adorno’s proclamation, that in great musical works, one does not understand the meaning of the first chord until the last is played, applies to an exceptional degree in Chopin’s op. 61. The opening motto forms the impetus of the entire work, and additionally a question, that is not answered before the closing A flat major is struck.

One of the clues, then, to performing the Polonaise-Fantaisie convincingly, is to be aware of the distinction between the permeating and long range structural strategy (embracing stability and instability alike, still vouching for the work’s extraordinary coherence) and the genre episodes, to care for both with regard to both form and expression (and also be conscious about the fact that form is one of the domineering expressive means in Chopin’s last works), and to know and chose when they should come across as being confluent, and when not. 

Preliminarily, on a normative level, so to speak, and perfectly in line with the concept of the Polonaise as genre accounted for above, we should profess, that op. 61 is prominently a piece of the kind that should not be obstructed, the performer must avoid standing in the way of the work.

A more detailed array of the entire Polonaise-Fantaisie, where each material (NB: not to be confused with form sections) of it is treated individually, may go as follows – in the disposition of a table: 


To start in the empirically detectable end: With the Polonaise-Fantaisie, its many erratic performances are almost a topic by itself. Personally, I have probably heard no other piece being so mistreated and molested on stage as the op. 61. And the same goes for the recordings. Pianists, who easily toss off considerably trickier pieces, purely technically speaking, can deliver more or less disastrous performances of this work. It is also a piece which renditions are famous for memory lapses. Or, usually a combination of the two. Horowitz, who played technically and musically coherently and impressively well up in his eighties, performed an utterly chaotic Polonaise-Fantaisie in London in 1982 (however most probably and chiefly due to (mal-)medication). His 1966 version is definitely on a much higher level regarding pitches and accuracy, but also here things tend to fall a little apart, and the coda contains its share of wrong notes. Another super-virtuoso and perfectionist of a quite different complexion, Maurizio Pollini, has his flaws in the live-version of 1986. Not even the master-pianist Grigory Sokolov’s record-long performance of 2005 is hundred percent clean. [35] And although there are good reasons for excusing the 70-year old Cortot in his after-war recordings, his 1947 Polonaise-Fantaisie is nothing but a jumble of misprints. This is of course not an attempt to establish a list of an all time low, but to exemplify a tendency, or better, display an intriguing symptom.

So much being said: The piece is not easy. It is the last major work for solo piano by the virtuoso-composer, also in pianistic scope and ambitions. But it doesn’t nearly measure up to the challenges of the really demanding bravura pieces by Chopin (Etudes, Rondos, first Concerto, a couple of the Ballades and Scherzi and so on). Or – does it? As far as the pianistic construction of the work goes, it is noteworthy that it presents sequences of most of the classical figures of Romantic advanced pianism, almost like a catalogue. Still, they all remain safely within the limits of the conventional (several types of octave playing, rapid (tonal) chords, leaps, double third runs, fast single note passage work, some repeated notes etc.). It is also interesting, and maybe telling, that a pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who, notably early in his career, did not care much for wrong notes, recorded an extremely fast and accordingly technically brilliant version of op. 61 in 1935 (his double thirds in b. 52-55 are just incredible). It must also be said that his interpretation is on the nonchalant side – which brings me to the point. If a performer is not absorbed by the artistic challenges of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, its difficulties are effortlessly mastered with the equipment of any pianist of some international stature. Obviously, the phenomenon of the many erratic renditions is complex. The work apparently possesses a certain ability to surprise pianists on stage. It poses a compound of mental, emotional, aesthetical (especially with regard to form), technical and memorising demands and difficulties. As confluent factors, they seem like in very few other works of the standard repertoire to overwhelm, disturb or push the pianist out of his comfort zone. Conclusively, the challenges and complex difficulties with performing Polonaise-Fantaisie merely seem congruent and identical with its nature of being an emblematic ‘late work’. The same goes for performing late opuses by Beethoven, but as these characteristics somehow to a higher degree than in Beethoven appear to collide with other properties of the work, or with Chopin’s style as perceived elsewhere, they become all the more disturbing. On the very performative level, there is something awkward and distinctly incommensurable about op. 61, – something irreconcilable.

Upon examining and considering the merely executive challenges of op. 61, it should be emphasised, that neither in the Polonaise-Fantaisie nor in most other pieces by Chopin, the specifically pianistic difficulties are primarily attached to speed and producing a high number of touches and correct pitches in a minimum of time. It is about sound, articulation and clarity. These properties, values and implicit demands also seem to have been purveyed by Chopin’s own playing. From pupils and critics we learn that it was marked by an extraordinary transparency, a basically strict tempo, an unusual ability to make the piano sing, a remarkable inner tension, non-exhibited energy and a distinct declamatory quality. As a pianist colleague appropriately remarked: «Chopin is just like Mozart – only infinitely more intricate.» [36] Above all, playing the majority of the music of Chopin satisfactorily is about disposing and balancing phrases, a perpetual quest for making the lines sing – and actually, a matter of carrying out a good legato. Noticeably, Liszt instructed von Lenz upon the latter’s rendition of Chopin’s Mazurkas, that «the true virtuoso is recognised by his legato» (on that occasion, pointing to the bass line in the left hand). [37]

Partly in line with the recognition of the importance of the genre, character and style of the Polonaise, Eigeldinger points out, that in Chopin’s classes, instruction of technique and teaching of style were inseparable. It is, according to him, hard to retell the principles that were governing his technical instructions without giving an outline of his musical aesthetics. [38] All the more we probably should pay attention to Chopin’s playing – as well as instructions.  In one of the most interesting and apparently precise descriptions of Chopin’s pianism, an anonymous critic writes as follows:

[…] whose compositions and playing style are distinguished by a correctness of design which never becomes mean, narrow, or too predictable; by an originality without pretension, boldness without exaggeration, brilliancy without tawdriness, energy without flying fists, and with an expression always clear, always sensed and profoundly gripping. M. Chopin has learned to make the piano sing […]. (my it.) [39]

His pupil Karol Mikuli similarly reports that «[…] ‘to exhibit himself’ was absolutely against his nature. […] the evenness of his scales and passage work was unsurpassed […] In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano.» [40] When discussing Chopin’s various types of rubato, Eigeldinger concludes, that no systematic considerations can «by any means convey all the subtle flexibility of movement in his playing, of which we know only that it was conditioned by an acute awareness of the length of the piece and by the internal logic commanding the tempo nuances in relation to the basic pulse.» [41] He observes, that the metaphor of the Kapellmeister – initially and famously applied on the role of the left hand in one of his specific and much talked-about rubato playings (metrical rubato) – was one of Chopin’s favourites, repeated before numerous pupils. The metronome affirms the classicist (with some feudal inclinations – or even predilections); Mikuli also adds that Chopin abhorred banging (cf. the paradigm of «one doesn’t have to»); an aristocratic power, devoid of (outwardly) despair and vulgarity.

To elaborate on the testimonies, there were apparently several distinctly conservative traits, preferences and values – alongside the innovative and explorative ones – in Chopin’s pianism. In aiming at constructing the piano and composer genius Chopin, one has been zealous to distinguish him convincingly from inferior contemporaries. We learn to think that Chopin was great – and e.g. Kalkbrenner was typically mediocre. Which of course is true enough. But sometimes we forget that Chopin actually admired Kalkbrenner’s pianism from the beginning, as he accordingly nurtured an everlasting distaste, or at least ambivalence, regarding Liszt’s playing (maybe he wouldn’t have objected to applying Cramer’s verdict la haute gymnastique musicale [42] on his semi-friend). In some ways, Chopin’s aesthetical ideals and passion for taste harken back to the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, and it is relevant to confer and compare his playing style with that of some figures of the past. Clementi’s favourite pupil John Field’s performances in Warsaw made a deep and multifaceted impact on the young Frédéric. Cramer and Moscheles represented no formative influences for Chopin, but he was sufficiently aligned with, or benevolent to, the ideals and pedagogical principles of the old-timer Moscheles («With all my admiration for Beethoven, I cannot forget Mozart, Cramer and Hummel») to contribute to his piano school Méthode des Méthodes with 3 études in 1839. [43]

Whereas Moscheles’ friend Beethoven hardly was a man Chopin took any lesson from, be it composition or piano playing, Chopin seems to embody somewhat of a fusion of the opponents and competitors Mozart and Clementi (the latter famously held in high esteem by Beethoven). Upon having the first meeting with Kalkbrenner, Chopin wrote in the frequently quoted letter of Dec 12th 1831 to his family in Warsaw: «I played my E minor, which the Rhinelanders: the Lind-painters, Bergs, Stuntzes, Schunks and all Bavaria had so raved over. I astonished Kalkbrenner, who at once asked me, was I not a pupil of Field, because I have Cramer's method and Field's touch. (That delighted me.)» Maybe the compliment was bull’s eye, although it pointed to another two Clementi pupils, like Kalkbrenner himself, and thus protected the guild. Field the poet (and fingering inventor) – and Cramer the classicist (by the way, another pianist worshipped by Beethoven). Cramer’s playing was smooth, cultivated and quite expressive – being faithful to the Clementi decree of maximum effect from a minimum of movements, and hence his almost motionless hands, close to the keys. Any kind of banging was a non-issue. Apparently it was generally rhythmically steady and intellectually well grounded. He was also famous for an exquisite singing quality in his renditions, besides including a lot of Bach and Mozart in his active concert repertoire – Chopin’s demigods. One has reasoned, from descriptions, that the Clementi pupil Cramer’s style of playing must to a considerable degree have resembled Hummel’s. Chopin respected Hummel as one of the great classical masters, and spent some time with him on his visits to the Austrian capitol in 1829 and 1831. Hummel represented the apex of the Mozartian tradition, so, at some point, the qualities of Vienna and London schools (or should one say, the ideals of the Viennese and English instruments), must have converged. 

There is, then, both a 18th century and a Viennese vein in Chopin, which occurs all the more striking, but not really surprising, when one reads for instance Mozart’s letters. That they cherished many of the same values in music and pianism (except for the legato) is hardly breaking news. Two expressions and concepts are repeated over and over in Mozart’s letters on music or performance, and those are ‘flow like oil’ and ‘taste’. We could also have added ‘clarity’ – to the Mozart-Hummel school as a whole. And Chopin would most probably have concurred with all three. In the remarkable letter to his father of October 23rd 1777, Mozart is discussing both style of playing and instruments extensively with the piano maker Johann Andreas Stein (with the Stein’s as vantage point). The text is most instructive to comprehend some of Mozart’s prominent musical values, and he says among other things: «[…] no one – these are his words – has ever played his Piano forte as well as I have, and, besides, I always keep correct time. They are all wondering about that. They simply can’t believe that you can play a Tempo rubato in an Adagio, and the left hand knows nothing about it but goes on playing in strict time. As far as they know, the left hand always follows the right.» [44] His letter brings of course interesting things regarding the aforementioned tempo rubato; that Mozart performed a metrical rubato (as far as we may have reason to believe) along exactly the same lines as Chopin, but that this was not an omniprevalent practice. We both hear the echo of Mikuli in and catch glimpses of Chopin’s metronome behind Mozarts words and reflections upon «correct time» and tempo. And like Chopin, Mozart indeed favoured a lot of expression, but within boundaries – that is, taste. 

There are also other more particular elements connecting Chopin with a conservative style of playing. Both Viardot (the opera singer) and Mikuli testify to his performance of ornaments, and trills specifically. [45] And that his general rule was to start the trill on the auxiliary note, upper or lower. Here again he sticks to the Classical and Baroque tradition, and in fact contrary to the (at this point) less conservative Hummel, who recommends trills to begin on the main note (not on the «subsidiary note») in his piano school of 1828. [46] Primarily this is an indication of ‘how to do the trill’ as such, but it may also tell us something about the meaning and emphasis, and rhetorical importance, of auxiliary notes in other contexts in Chopin’s music, and here, in the Polonaise-Fantaisie (cf. the downbeat in bar 98).

From all indications, Chopin as a performer was ‘thickening’ [47] both his own and other’s works in a, so to speak, predominantly slim way. And also, on a fairly strict rhythmical diet. His rubati and liberties in tempo, or rather, the dizzying effects from them, were famous. But probably they were, empirically speaking, by measurement, extremely subtle. If Chopin’s style of playing at all may have any significance for our approach to the Polonaise-Fantaisie, tempo, time and timing should be a major concern in preparing op. 61, as well as constituting an essential criterion for judging about style and performative realisations of the work.



The overview in the table above might serve to make oneself aware of the pianistic demands and artistic and formal questions and issues that are raised by the score. But in order to discriminate and judge competently about the music as heard, one has to take into account further considerations and confront the findings in the score with some combined and interactive parameters – as well as with a couple of new distinctions and yardsticks. These distinctions and parameters may relate to general traits of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, and e.g. compared to other pieces by the same composer (intertextual considerations); some of the structural and textural qualities and topoi described in the table above in interplay; and finally, a number of performative (as opposed to cultural-textual) parameters outside the score, those belonging to the domain of performance practice. Some of these last questions are touched upon in the considerations of Chopin’s own playing and style of playing, however not to performance practice as a notion of (a relative) consensus amongst a collective of musicians, and not various performance practices akin to the historical periods after the death of Chopin – and even after the end of the Romantic century. But then Chopin himself – as pointed to – most probably was a carrier of such general knowledge also, and thus a representative for some tradition, [48] in addition to his individual ingenuity and self-instigated style.

—General traits: 

We may introduce at least one new, although fairly abstract, parameter – and hence dichotomy: Intellectuality vs. non-intellectuality. We recall Eugéne Délacroix’ statement «rationality crowned by genius». Beyond doubt, the Polonaise-Fantaisie is intellectually one of Chopin’s most accomplished works. This is a kind of a premise itself and sheds light on how aspects and episodes of the piece are to be interpreted. A good many of the interpretations of op. 61 suffer from being absurdly whimsical, planless and haphazard. As op. 61 already is fragmentary or rhapsodic by its very formal outline, it poses extra demands to coherent thinking. 

—Textures and rhetorical genres:

The presence of the many textures and rhetoric genres is important, and they might be categorised and also described more nuanced and multi-dimensionally: (Chiefly) homophonic vs. polyphonic texture; the vertical vs. the horizontal dimensions of the work and how they should be weighted; contour: the defined vs. the blurred; the phenomenon of heteroglossia (many and different voices and languages singing and speaking at a time); the monomorphic vs. polymorph; generally the improvisatory vs. non-improvisatory sequences; stability vs. instability; ‘dream’ (the possibly directionless) vs. ‘resolve’ (possibly forwardness) etc. And besides, naturally, the various sectional characters more explicitly referring to defined genres outside op. 61, whether they are instrumental or vocal, or included in Chopin’s œuvre or not: Polonaise, Nocturne, Waltz, Mazurka, Ballade, Scherzo, Etude a.o.; further on Lied, Aria, Recitative, Cantilena, Serenade, Cavatina. Or more formal or abstract genres, as Exposition, Ritornell, Development, Stanza, Couple etc. 

Op. 61 is known for its inserts of quasi improvisatory genres. These sections naturally and self-evidently invite to improvisation-like approaches and renditions. But still one has to remember that the piece is improvisatory the Polonaise-Fantaisie way. That means, in a context of meticulously consistent structure – and a dance of power, the elegance of the upper class, of people in positions. «Improvisatory» here does certainly not mean rampant or arbitrary; rather these sequences are to be understood as reminiscences, memories and reminders of improvisations, otherwise governed by the work’s relentless intellectual strategies. — One of the work’s prime characteristics, the extension of unstable sections, is given as a structural precondition (harmony). Neither should this, however, lead the performer astray. A harmonic instability is often combined with a rhetorical stability – as the presence of the Polonaise motif and rhythm. 

—Performance practice:

The yardsticks for a rich portfolio of performance practices and their various protocols are numerous: Fidelity to the text (in the first place, respect for pitches); sense of tempo and practice of tempo modifications and fluctuations respectively; the practice of the different forms of rubato and rhythmical alterations (inequality, double-dotting etc.); modes of phrasing (long-line, short-line, within or across bar-lines etc.); dislocation (left and right hand not together) and other asynchronies, like unnotated arpeggiation; the use of legato (seamless or not); articulations; beat hierarchy; treating of dissonances (stressed or not); passage-playing and evenness and equality of 16th notes. [49] In the case of Chopin himself, it will, as previously suggested, also be relevant to observe the divide between early and late Romantic performance practices, as he apparently disclosed influences from and kinship with a more classical, elegant style associated with Mozart and Hummel, and to some degree Clementi, Cramer and Moscheles.

Here a number of concrete questions arise. Should we stress dissonances like in appoggiaturas? Are we allowed to alter pitches and add notes? (in fact, both Rubinstein and Cortot do so significantly) And what about arpeggiated chords and dislocation, can they be recommended? (this is frequently in use by pianists widely across performance practice divides) —Is the famous Chopinian rubato at all thinkable of being employed in op. 61, and if so, where? Da Costa differentiates between several kinds of rubati, large- and small-scale tempo alterations. At least two were reportedly employed by Chopin: the one named metrical by da Costa (steady and regular accompaniment, freely shaped melodic or leading voice) and the rubato implying tempo fluctuations in all voices simultaneously. [50] The first one had probably descended from Italian Baroque practice, and was prevalent in both 17th and 18th centuries (confirmed and codified again by Türk in 1789, and as we have seen, also practiced by e.g. Mozart). And no one has forbidden it being applied in the Polonaise-Fantaisie. But bearing in mind that it originates in Italian Baroque and practiced by the melodic genius Mozart, it is logical to think that it is appropriate in typically homophonic textures, and not polyphonic. Such aria-like genres can be detected in op. 61 (e.g. section (VIII)). One may assume that Chopin did not employ metrical rubato (if at all conceivable) in the fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Metrical rubato is presumably more suitable and applicable for the «Rossini style» than for the «Beethoven style». We have sounding evidences to support such an assumption. Maybe the most reliable witness and carrier of the Chopinian performative heritage was probably the Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski (1885–1948), student of the Chopin pupil and assistant Karol Mikuli. It is highly revealing how he relates to the various textures of e.g. the Preludes op. 28. Whereas the first prelude is written in (sort of) «Beethoven style», already no. 2 presents itself with a dash of a Cavatina-resembling «Rossini style» – and for Koczalski it obviously appears as subject to what da Costa defines as ‘metrical rubato’. —And then there are general time and tempo considerations. The various senses of time might be said to form an overall criterion or underlying premise for different performance practices. But tempo and ‘sense of time’ are two different things. The sense of time reveals itself in tempo alterations, how the tempo is bent. Still, Cortot’s extremely high tempo might generally be said also to express a sense of time, as his high pace affects his phrasings and shaping of fields and form elements in a pivotal way. His stretches and fields inevitably become longer, and this also provokes certain other priorities, connected to e.g. sound, pedalling and texture. In other words, in his particular case the very tempo also becomes an agent or works as an indication for a certain performance practice. The extraordinary thing about Cortot’s rendition is, that despite its hair-raising speed it does not sound indifferent, superficial or devoid of identity, which would easily have been the case had the tempo not at the same time been interacting with quite specific tempo alterations and other parameters. Then we also know from historical recordings that tempi generally were probably higher in the 19th century than they are today (or in most of the 20th century). At least in fast movements. But again, these high tempi also work in tandem with different syntaxes and disposition of phrases, and hence with a foreign sense of time – and timing.) [51]

Upon combining some of the knowledges, we may tentatively embark on more compound and semantic interpretations of certain fields. E.g.: When we arrive at the vortex figures drawing and sucking us into the recapitulation(s), we are encountered by an unambiguous virtuoso style. Something that primarily generates energy of velocity, is extremely (here:) pianistically idiomatic and pays off by sounding more difficult than it is. The figures are sequential and rhythmically homogenous. We may in fact in Adornian terms talk of a Durchbruch of the simple, or the flashy – or even populistic. Which is not to say that the piece has become sloppy on the formal and structural level. But all of a sudden it is as if the work, at least for a moment, gives in. The Polonaise-Fantaisie’s prominent and defying resistance to everything that is easy come and easy go – maybe its very hallmark – here seemingly fades away, quite easily. The piece is on leave – from itself, as it were (the change is physically very tangible, experienced as something you slide into, a downhill, or something of a slippery slope). But it is also a definite Durchbruch of the heroic, depicting a summoning of forces before the defining battle. And heroism is never devoid of a populistic element. The ‘message’ must be characterised as straightforward and easily perceived – presented simply and effectively as in a movie soundtrack. The main musical argument comes with the Polonaise motif (for the last time). The motif, but also the dramaturgical situation, is where the heroic is embedded, structurally manifest and texturally underpinned, by its decisive and penetrative rhythm, and by the very contrast and contour of the titanic, bold and clear Polonaise fanfare rising above and through the maelstrom, showing the way out of turmoil and chaos. It predicts and foreshadows the two main themes, ferociously intensified in the recapitulation’s double apotheosis (by the way, possibly the work’s only flaw). From the structural elements we may extract the following initial meaning: the descending minor second in the bass, from the minor sixth to the fifth, is a disturbing signal that something is afoot, but then it falls even through the floor, to the second below («this is serious, this is for real; we’ve reached the point of no return»). And exactly on that spot, where the ground is yielding, a rope, a lifeline is thrown out; and of course, that new rescuing, redeeming, sovereign, somewhat super-personal element, is the Polonaise motif. — But how this is solved performatively and rhetorically, is by no means self-evident. The performer has the choice of prioritising between a number of textural elements; as the upper treble voice; the bass line; the semiquaver triplets; and of course, the Polonaise rhythmical motif. Further on, this bridge section to the recapitulation both consists of clearly defined materials and is divided into easily recognisable sub-fields. According to both performance practice and individual choices, the paragraphs (sub-fields) and how they are related will probably come across widely different. For instance, in a Romantic performance style, the clear-cut form sections are evaded, [52] and a pianist situated in this will be likely to understate the differences or contrasts between the fields, and rather rule out or make smooth e.g. the sudden shift from semiquaver triplets to semiquavers at the end of the main section.

Ultimately it will all gravitate towards semantics, to which admittedly quite a few hints already are given. What is the work all about, what does it mean – and contain? Except for the ever irreproachable answer: it is about the Polonaise-Fantaisie, and its «tönend bewegte Formen.» [53] I have already tried to set forth that «music alone does not suffice for interpreting music.» [54] There are, perhaps, no codes for meaning itself. Maybe with particular relevance for music, «meaning must always be produced: it is singular; it is contingent: it is polymorphic.» [55] Hanslick puts us on the track. Because the proof of the pudding is in the eating, also the meaning of the op. 61 lies in and emerges from the sound, or – if one prefers – from the sounding text. In music, meaning is an event.  

The Reflective Musician seminar:

"Late Style", Nov. 20th 2014

Håkon Austbø explaining the Polonaise-Fantaisie

Performance of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, April 13th 2015

- by Håkon Austbø


1 Chopin/Voynich 1931, 313. The letter originally penned in French. An exactly similar letter was sent 30 June 1847, regarding publishing of the next opuses: «Op. 63 Three Mazurkas for the piano / 64. Three Waltzes /65. Sonata for Piano and Violoncello» (Chopin/Voynich 1931, 331). [back]

2 From Four Quartets (1943): «Burnt Norton». [back]

3 Here the narrow, musical notion, not the one of post-structural theory, as with R. Schechner, J. Butler a.o. [back]

4 One of Chopin’s less congenial predispositions, was his habit of taking advantage of friends rather unabashedly for his own practical purposes. And here he did not differentiate between bachelors and busy family men. The cellist, conserva-tory professor, organiser and father of four, A. Franchomme, was one of the chosen, from whom Chopin bluntly expec-ted comprehensive services. From George Sand’s mansion in Nohant, he would readily write him, Julian Fontana and a handful others letters, and order tapestry, pieces of furniture and above all elegant clothing from exclusive shops for the winter season in Paris. He was always meticulous about describing texture and qualities, and a common denominator was discrete elegance (colours beige or pearl grey, sometimes blue) and everything explicitly according to haute couture, the highest fashion. He also was surrounded and entertained by an entourage, who protected him and made him inacces-sible to unwelcome friends and second-rate admirers. Von Lenz reports, that a megastar like Liszt was an easy match to approach compared to Chopin: «[…] bei mir, zum Beispiel, nun da ist’s gar nicht, aber schwer, schwer ist’s bei Chopin! Wie Viele haben die Reise nach Paris gemacht und bekamen ihn nicht zu sehen!» Von Lenz encompasses Chopin’s personality – for better or worse – in the single French word distingué. Von Lenz 1872, 27 and 22. [back]

5 Excellent and informative outlines of the properties and characteristics of Chopin’s latest works are presented in Jeffrey Kallberg’s article «Chopin’s Last Style» (1985). [back]

6 Kiesewetter 1846, 98-101. It is documented that Chopin actually met «Hofrath» Kiesewetter at least twice in Vienna, in both private and official contexts, cf. letters of Dec 1829 and 28 May 1831. In the latter he declares Kiesewetter to belong to the elite of the Viennese public – which did not at all offend the young, ambitious and aristocratic Chopin: «After dinner yesterday I went with Thalberg to the Evangelical church, where Hesse, a young organist from Wrocaw, distinguished himself before a picked Viennese audience: The tip-top folk were there: beginning with Stadler, Kiesewet-ter, Mosel, Seyfried, Gyrowetz, etc., and ending with the verger.» Chopin/Voynich 1931, 142 [back]

7 Dahlhaus 1989, 8ff. [back]

8 Von Lenz confirms several places that Chopin’s actual knowledge of Beethoven’s music was sparse and rather superfic-ial. At the time he visited him, in 1842, he was obviously not familiar with his last quartets and other late works, but like most Parisian music lovers he knew quite well some of the middle period’s. And as pianist he reportedly kept only the A flat major sonata op. 26 as part of his active repertoire. Generally, he did not hold Beethoven in high esteem as a comp-oser, compared to his models and demigods Mozart and Bach. E.g. von Lenz 1872, 40, and Mikuli: «Above all he priz-ed Bach, and between Bach and Mozart it is hard to say whom he loved more.» Eigeldinger 2008, 276. [back]

9 He enjoyed playing J. Fields Nocturnes for the same reason, to improvise fiorituras. Eigeldinger 2008, 52. [back]

10 7 April 1849. Delacroix 1954, 48-49. [back]

11 And, in the next hand, this alliance between moral and aesthetics which came to characterise the discourse on notated works, fueled among other things the metaphysics of absolute music. Cf. Carl Dahlhaus’ The Idea of Absolute Music. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989  [back]

12 Admittedly, the testimonies to the connection between Chopin’s improvisations and composing, are generally quite strong – if not too concrete. As the case was with Beethoven, his improvisations seem to have exerted an even greater impact on the listeners than his written compositions: «… Chopin’s most beautiful finished compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations» (J. Fontana), «… Chopin’s improvisations were far bolder than his finished compositions» (E. Délacroix). Eigeldinger 2008, 282. [back]

13 The author, critic and humanitarian Edward Said (1935–2003), nourished a lifelong enthusiasm for T. W. Adorno, and his last tribute to – and elaboration on – the philosopher and aesthetician, was his book On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain, itself a late work, published posthumously (2007). Here he contemplates the multiple contradic-tions that often mark the works of an artist’s last creative phase. [back]

14 His views are clarified for instance in Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing (Cambridge UP, 2010).  [back]

15 Hereafter without ‘quotes’. [back]

16 He was primarily pointing to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and 9th symphony. [back]

17 Chopin paid in fact close attention to what was happening within natural sciences. In a letter home to his family in Warsaw from Nohant on 11 October 1846 (the Polonaise-Fantaisie was published in Paris 10 November 1846) he held forth enthusiastically on astronomers’ latest mathematical calculations, and whether the irregularities in Uranus’s orbit could indicate one or more hitherto unnoticed objects in the solar system. That one could calculate this with just the tools of mathematics alone, by pure logic, fascinated him deeply. He also writes about new types of explosives, and was also occupied with the phenomenon of magnetism. [back]

18 Karol Mikuli quoting from Chopin’s teaching. Eigeldinger 2008, 59. [back]

19 Adorno 1993, 184. From an autonomous short-text titled Spätstil Beethovens, written 1934. The quote continues: «Das erhellt den Widersinn, daß der letzte Beethoven zugleich subjektiv und objektiv genannt wird. Objektiv ist die brüchige Landschaft, subjektiv das Licht, darin einzig sie erglüht. Er bewirkt nicht deren harmonische Synthese. Er reißt sie, als Macht der Dissoziation, in der Zeit auseinander, um vielleicht fürs Ewige sie zu bewahren. In der Geschichte von Kunst sind Spätwerke die Katastrophen.» [back]

20 Kramer 2011, 78. [back]

21 An instructive account is to be found in esp. the first chapter («Neo-Romanticism») of Carl Dahlhaus’ Between Roman-ticism and Modernism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989 (first paperback printing). Generally, he puts a lot of emphasis on the 19th century political upheavals and revolutions, as well as on the industrial development, as mind-shaping forces. [back]

22 Said to Wilhelm von Lenz in 1842. Von Lenz 1872, 41. The numerous Klavierschulen underpin Chopin’s opinion. [back]

23 The edition is inaccurate, by the way, in referring to a letter to A. Franchomme allegedly dated 30 August 1846. The correct is 30 August 1845. This weakens the letter’s direct relevance for the issuing of op. 61. [back]

24 The paragraph in question from the 1845 letter goes as follows: «Ask Maho not to change the manuscripts for Härtel ; because, as I do not correct the Leipsic proofs, it is important that my manuscript should be clear. Also, ask Brandus to send me two proofs, so that I can keep one.» Chopin/transl. Voynich 1931, 292–293. [back]

25 From previously cited letter to Breitkopf & Håartel in Leipzig. Chopin/transl. Voynich 1931, 313. The work was also issued by Chopin’s publisher in London: Wessel & Co. Importers and Publishers of Foreign Music, in 1846. The Eng-lish edition looks to be a hybrid between the Paris and Leipzig editions, and is both graphically and editorially inferior to the continental ones. [back]

26 The frequently debated asynchronous notation of the dotted quaver vs. the triplet in the Leipzig edition (baroque notation, corrected according to the Paris edition by G. Henle) is another editorial issue, but not paid attention to here. [back]

27 Chopin admits unreservedly that he belongs to the city: «I was not made for the country, though fresh air is good for me. I don't play much, as my piano is out of tune; I write still less […]» etc. From previously quoted letter to Warsaw from Nohant 20 July 1845. Chopin/Voynich 1931, 284. [back]

28 Von Lenz: «[Chopin war] hinreißend, jede Note stand auf der höchsten Stufe des Geschmacks, im höchsten Sinne des Wortes. Brachte er einmal eine Verzierung an, was nur selten geschah, so war es immer eine Art von Wunder in gutem Geschmack» (when he made an embellishment, […] it was always a wonder of good taste). Von Lenz 1872, 47. [back]

29 In her essay «A performer’s responsibility». Tyndham 1998, 64. [back]

30 The books on the topic fill shelf-meters; the classics are of course Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act (1995), John Butt’s Playing with History (2002), the anthology Rethinking Music from 1999 and some more; later on supplemented by a profusion of writings by John Rink, Nicholas Cook, Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and the CHARM circle etc. [back]

31 Tyndham 1998, 56. [back]

32 Kramer 2011, 68, and in meaning, many more places. [back]

33 19 August and later. Chopin/Voynich 1931, 368ff. These letters are, by the way, truly impressive regarding the ability to memorise names, titles, orders, distinctions and biographical details as conveyed in receptions and parties. [back]

34 To his sister Ludwika, married Jedrzejewicz. 10 February 1848. Chopin/Voynich 1931, 368.  [back]

35 The unusual duration is due to his extremely slow introduction, not to the basic tempo of the polonaise. See also note 50. [back]

36 Cf. von Lenz: «Die Tonfarbe Chopin’s ist eine Raphaelische! Er ist der Raphael des Klaviers […].» ibid., 50. The notion of the «Raphaelische» is most likely a direct quote from Heine, or perhaps Balzac (cf. Eigeldinger 2008, 284-85). It might be, though, that Raphael du piano was an established nickname to Chopin in the piano circles of Paris. Von Lenz had the flaneur’s conversational ability to pick up the hearsay of a city, which provides fascinating glimpses of the time. It is also a historical witness to a way of relating to phenomena, and insofar it claims validity, the Romantic manner of documentary and hermeneutics, where conceptual entities are built by associations and often loosely compiled, and accordingly approximately cited, statements. On Chopin’s playing, see also Eigeldinger 2008, 291 etc. below.  [back]

37 Von Lenz 1872, 26. He also observed that Chopin constantly changed fingers on held-down keys, as an organist. [back]

38 Eigeldinger 2008, 13. [back]

39 In Le Pianiste, II/15, 5 June 1835. Ibid. 2008, 291f. [back]

40 Ibid. 275f. [back]

41 Ibid. 2008, 120. [back]

42 John Baptist Cramer on the ‘modern school of piano playing’, which he also nicknamed bien fort, as opposed to fort bien, as it used to be in his youth (‘good and mighty’ and ‘mighty good’, respectively). Schonberg 1987, 70. [back]

43 «Moscheles was one of the first of the serious pianist-musicians. He was the precursor of the Clara Schumanns and Hans von Bülows: a virtuoso who transcended virtuosity and was guided only by the nobility of his art. […] He was the Schnabel of his day, and he was born too early» says Harold Schonberg. Schonberg 1987, 122 and 125. [back]

44 Spaethling, Robert (ed. and transl.). Mozart’s letters. Mozart’s life. London: Faber & Faber 2004, 81 [back]

45 Eigeldinger 2008, 59 and 131 [back]

46 The Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Pianoforte. He recommends sparse pedal-ling, but then e.g. a new rule regarding the trill. In his first publication, in 1810, he still defends the auxiliary note trill. [back]

47 Cf. Davies, Stephen. Musical Works and Performances. Oxford/NY: Oxford UP 2001 [back]

48 Da Costa refers to Liszt and concludes that Chopin’s playing was marked by a «highly developed artistic sense based on knowledge of accepted practice.» (my it.) Da Costa 2012, 235. [back]

49 Haynes 2007, 48, da Costa 2012 and others. [back]

50 Actually, Mikuli launches a third kind, which he calls ‘national rubato’. Obviously, he found Chopin’s performance of e.g. the Mazurkas to be of such a specific and peculiar kind that it could not possibly be circumscribed by the categories from common and known performance practice – or could be compared to any of these. Eigeldinger 2008, 121. [back]

51 The average duration of 24 selected performances lies on 12 minutes and 18 seconds. Duration measurements are usually of sparse interest as far as stylistically and strategically interpretive indications and identity goes. Hardly any per-formance practice yardsticks are given by tempo alone, although the tempo in a piece is probably the one single most character-determining property of a  [back]performance. Tempo perpetually proves to be the sine qua non of the time-art music. However, it is, for instance, impossible and irrelevant to conclude that François’, Ekier’s, Richter’s and Badura-Skoda’s renditions are something like «mainstream», as their durations are close to the average figures. Further on, the individ-ual durations do not even say anything definite about tempo, especially in such a compound and complex work as the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Cortot’s 9’30’’ immediately seems absurdly fast, and Sokolov’s 15’06’’ accordingly absurdly slow. But we don’t know where and in which way they are fast and slow respectively. Basically, for our purpose, the duration digits are misleading. Sokolov, for one, spends an awful lot of time at the slow introduction, whereas he in several other stret-ches of the piece sticks tempo-wise to something close to a middle-of-the-road conception. But of course, we can deduce right away, that Cortot must necessarily play the piece quite fast, more or less all over the place. And one might say, that the disparate durations give us a general hint about the wide range of interpretive – and possible interpretive – approac-hes, the very acting scope that the op. 61 obviously provides the performers. [back]

52 Cf. Slåttebrekk/Harrison 2010: Esp. Approaching a Performance Style, Tempo Modulation, Swing, and Structure, and “The notes must embrace the bars, not the bars the notes” – Robert Schumann [back]

53 Eduard Hanslick’s famous definition in chapter 3 of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (Wien 1854). The statement in extenso: «Tönend bewegte Formen sind einzig und allein Inhalt und Gegenstand der Musik.»  [back]

54 Kramer 2011, 76. [back]

55 Ibid. 22 [back]



To Messrs. Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipsic.

I, the undersigned, Fred. Chopin, domiciled in Paris at 34 rue St. Lazare, acknowledge that I have sold to Messrs. Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipsic the rights of the following works composed by me; namely:

Op. 60 Barcarole for Piano

Op. 61 Polonaise for Piano

Op. 62 Two Nocturnes for Piano

I declare that I have ceded this property to the said firm for all time and all countries including Russia and excepting France and England and I acknowledge that I have received the price agreed upon, for which a separate receipt has been given. 

Paris, 19th November 1846.

Fr. Chopin [1]