The Chopin Polonaise
Grand, Nationalist Polonaises

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!

...what's a Polonaise?

The Polish Coat of Arms

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.

Click to listen to and explore Chopin's etudes, some of which feature the composer's heroic side like the polonaises.

Popular Chopin Polonaises

The most well-known of Chopin's polonaises are:
  • Military Polonaise in A major, Op. 40 No. 1. This is a straightforward piece, with a grand ceremonial sound. reminds me of a victory parade, a celebration of how great Poland once was. Very rousing! I find the melody extremely catchy.

  • Heroic Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 53. One of Chopin's most famous pieces, this is a stirring hymn to Poland's greatness. Chopin was idealizing his country as a powerful and independent nation in this work.

  • Fantasy Polonaise in A flat Major, Op. 61. Chopin wrote this late in his life. He thought it was a kind of polonaise, but with a fantasy-like feel. So he called a Polonaise-Fantasie (good move!).

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.

List of Every Chopin Polonaise

Published in Chopin's lifetime:
Polonaise, Op. 26 No. 1 in C-sharp Minor
Polonaise, Op. 26 No. 2 in E-flat Minor
Polonaise, Op. 40 No. 1 in A Major (Military)
Polonaise, Op. 40 No. 2 in C Minor
Polonaise, Op. 44 in F-sharp Minor
Polonaise, Op. 53 in A-flat Major (Heroic)
Polonaise, Op. 61 in A-flat Major (Fantasie)
3 Polonaises, Op. 71 No. 1 in D Minor
3 Polonaises, Op. 71 No. 2 in B-flat Major
3 Polonaises, Op. 71 No. 3 in F Minor

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.

Click to read about legendary pianist and man-of-the-world Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

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...

Artur Rubinstein

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.

Recommended Recording

You'll probably also love Chopin's etudes and his waltzes.

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