What did I say about Frédéric Chopin’s “Nocturnes” at the beginning of the year? You cannot listen to this music by daylight. It doesn’t work. The music doesn’t transmit its inherent magic at daylight. This also holds true for his “Ballades”. Here I sit, it is past 11 pm, the house is asleep and I am reading up on Chopin, his life, his works. As far back as I can can go in memory, I usually listen to Chopin’s music at night. Strange, isn’t it?
Curiously, when I thought about this post, I listened to Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, op. 23, and it reminded me not of a lonely night, but rather of a lovely evening I spent with my family on the coast of Brittany. It was the last day of a wonderful vacation. Time to say good-bye to the sea that all three of us love. Time to think about the good time we had. We had set out to have dinner at a small, but renown seafood restaurant, and on our way to the restaurant, we admired the sunset. It was windy and cool, but we stayed on, the setting was just to captivating and I was a little melancholic.
An emotional message
Chopin started to write his Ballade No. 1 in 1831. It was the first piece of music ever to have this name. It squares with the shape of the music – a stroll across the different shapes of the two themes. They are not developed as they would be in a classical piano sonata, they are presented with a different emotional “value”. Or tag, as bloggers would say. Does that make sense? Chopin wanted to share his message – his emotions – exclusively through the music, avoiding programmatic titles as they were used by Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. The name “Ballade” also matches the content of the music: A certain intimacy and tenderness between the musician and the listener suggest two people in love with each other, enjoying a solitary stroll on a remote coastal, sharing a romantic moment as the sun sets.
Intimate and introspective
What I said about Ballade No. 1 is also valid for Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, op. 52, written in 1842. It is even more intimate, one could even say introspective. The composer and the pianist seem to talk to themselves and the listener is more of a witness. It is more intellectual, more elaborate, more mature. It reminds me a little of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” – a philosopher completely absorbed by his thoughts, some heavy, some light, some violent, some perfectly calm. Tadeusz Zielinsky, who has written an excellent biography on Chopin, says that Ballade No. 4 is “the most lyrical and meditative” of the four he has written.
The French pianist Lise de la Salle has recorded all four Ballades with the label naive. My personal favourite is Ballade No. 2 in F Major, op. 38. The beginning is so full of tenderness that I could weep each time I listen to it. It took Chopin four years to complete it. The two themes are very different one from the other: the first very gentle, full of warmth and comforting, the second rough, with sharp edges, austere and frightening at times. Ballade No. 3 is very down to earth, to a much lesser degree marked by contrasts between the different themes. Apparently, a poem about a mermaid called “The Undine”, written by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, inspired Chopin to write this piece.
© Charles Thibo