The Chopin Polonaise. Rousing, fiercely patriotic music.
The majestic polonaises are the composer's uplifting expression of his love for his native Poland.
But the pieces are also violent and thundering. This reflects Chopin's mix of pride and anger at Poland's suffering.
They're fun pieces to listen to, and they show a rare heroic side of Chopin.
Some people think that if Chopin had just written his polonaises and nothing else, he would still be popular and regarded as a master.
I don't think this is quite true (I think his quieter and more thoughtful pieces are just as important), but it shows how well-known and loved each single Chopin polonaise is!
A polonaise is a Polish national dance, with its own typical rhythm.
It's a very majestic symbol of Polish patriotism. I sometimes get an image of a grand procession of Polish Knights and Kings when I hear a polonaise.
Here's the normal rhythm of a Polonaise, from the Chopin Polonaise in G-flat Major:
Chopin took the polonaise form and made it more complex and sophisticated.
He was a really enthusiastic Pole. He he loved everything about Poland, and was incredibly proud of his country (he was half French though, which confuses me a bit!).
Naturally the composer loved the polonaise form. In fact, his very first compositions were two polonaises (these were published after he died).
Chopin expressed his romanticized love for his country and his anger at how its past glory was being oppressed through his later polonaises.
Poland was partitioned and under the control of other powers (like Prussia, Austria, and the Russian Empire) for Chopin's whole life. The composer hated this.
Robert Schumann called the Chopin polonaise cannons buried in flowers.
A clever description: powerful weapons of war covered in beauty.
Chopin wrote 16 polonaises during his entire life. He wrote half of them while he still lived in Poland. The other half he wrote when he was in Paris, and could only imagine his beloved Poland from afar.
Since he used some of his polonaises to express his rage at Poland's loss of independence, the pieces can sound quite violent and stormy. They don't have much in common with Chopin's elegant and quieter pieces.
Here's a performance I really like of the Heroic polonaise. It's played by Arthur Rubinstein, who was Polish (hence why he says he likes the polonaise so much!).
Also, here's the Polonaise in E-flat Minor (nicknamed The Siberian Revolt). A brooding piece, with a sombre mood and images of battle.
Unpublished in Chopin's lifetime (posthumous works):
Polonaise in A-flat Major
Polonaise in B-flat Major
Polonaise in B-flat Minor
Polonaise in G Minor
Polonaise in G-sharp Minor
Polonaise in G-flat Major
Of course, since the Chopin polonaises are inherently nationalist dances, it stands to reason that any skilled Polish pianist would perform them excellently. So I wasn't disappointed with Artur Rubinstein's recording.
Rubinstein doesn't give them the violent ferocity of patriotism, but plays in a half-magical and aristocratic manner. This CD (vol. 48 of the Rubinstein collection) has remastered recordings from throughout Rubinstein's long career...
Vladimir Ashkenazy, being a Russian, could be seen as the oppressor whom Chopin was directing his anger toward. But if anything Ashkenazy plays with even more fiery power and grandness than Rubinstein.
This two-disc set on Decca has all the polonaises Chopin wrote, so is probably a better option for the completists.
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