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Chopin's Polish Ballade Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom.

Chopin's Polish Ballade Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom. By Jonathan Bellman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. [214 p. ISBN 978-0-19-533886-7, 27.50 [pounds sterling]]

Jonathan D. Bellman's book is an interesting, albeit controversial, interpretation of Chopin's Op. 38 Ballade as a tale of the martyrdom of the Polish nation. The author's underlying assumption is that in creating the genre of the instrumental ballade, which previously had been linked invariably to a verbal text and was a specific narration, Chopin also wanted to transmit a specific tale through purely musical means. Thus, Bellman refers to nineteenth-century programmatic interpretations of music. He differs from such readings, however, in his attempt to prove that the means employed by Chopin possessed--both for Chopin and for his contemporaries--specific semantic content and could therefore convey specific extra musical content. And so they could create a language, enabling the composer to piece together a semantically unambiguous story.

In order to justify his interpretation and demonstrate the meanings of musical gestures, Bellman offers a broad discussion of the context in which the Ballade was composed, the musical realities in which Chopin created it, and, in particular, the ballades from operas that enjoyed huge popularity at that time and with which the composer was perfectly familiar. He also describes the mood and emotions among the Polish exile community in Paris following the fall of the November Rising against Russia--a community with which Chopin maintained close, friendly contacts. In addition, he refers to the composer's own emotions and thoughts, familiar to us from his correspondence and his 'Stuttgart Diary'.

The book comprises six chapters, in which Bellman gives a broad discussion of the context in which the Op. 38 Ballade was composed, before providing in the final chapter a detailed account of the story told by that work. The author sums up the programme ascribed to the Ballade as follows: 'Polish version of Eden to the Fall, to the Expulsion, and finally to the Pilgrim bearing the agonizing memory as they wanly sang the Lord's song in the strange land' (p. 165). According to Bellman, such a reading of this work is wholly concordant with representations of the Poles in France and accounts for its gloomy conclusion, which requires a two-key structure: Poland is enslaved, the pilgrim cannot return home, and so there is no return to the original key of F major. And here a certain doubt arises. The two-key structure of the work is doubtless linked to changes taking place within the hero of the tale or situation (the subject), but are those changes actually that clear cut? One must remember that the Ballade, Op. 38 is not Chopin's only two-key work (cf. Scherzo, Op. 31, Fantasy, Op. 49), although here the relationship between the two keys is undoubtedly the most distant. So it is a procedure that is present in the composer's language. But is it always linked to a specific tale? Or is it a logical consequence of the musical process, a result of the transformation of the material--a transformation that serves, of course, to express particular emotions and their changes?

The author goes on to supply details of the programme. For example, the first theme (bars 1-46), a Siciliana, represents Chopin in Poland before the Rising; it is a kind of paradise; the second theme (bars 47-83) is a sudden, violent storm or battle, which refers to the nation's struggle for freedom; and the Siciliana rhythm that recurs throughout the rest of the work suggests unfulfilled aspirations and dreams, similar to the dreams of 1831, when it seemed that the damage and misery wrought by the Russians could be minimalized. The continuation of the work is interpreted in a similar way. The author bases these interpretations on the musical means employed in the Ballade and analogies with corresponding fragments from operas and from the works of Mickiewicz. In the earlier parts of the book, the author undertakes a survey of the literature in search of remarks on the connection between Chopin's ballades and Mickiewicz's ballads. Bellman rightly points out that--apart from Schumann's comment on the subject--there is no evidence of such a connection within Chopin's milieu. He does not deny, however, a link between the Ballade and Mickiewicz, seeing an analogy with Jankiel's concert from Pan Tadeusz, a poetic novel by Mickiewicz published in Paris in 1834 (shortly before Chopin's Op. 38 Ballade was composed), which Chopin certainly knew very well. Besides pointing to certain structural similarities, the author invokes Polish letters, in which Mickiewicz and Chopin 'were paired constantly' (p. 61). It should be emphasised, however, that the linking of these two creative artists in Polish letters involves not the perception of any similarities in their work, but the very fact that each of them was a great Polish national creative artist.

Bellman also stresses that in Chopin's times music was universally perceived in programmatic terms, and that Chopin must have had such an understanding of music, and of the ballades in particular, although he never disclosed the programme on which they were based. This is the book's principal assumption, although it is based more on the author's convictions than on any evidence. One example is his argumentation concerning the First Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, which is supposed to demonstrate the presence of a specific tale already in Chopin's first work in this genre. The author sees here links with another poetical novel by Mickiewicz, Konrad Wallenrod. Although discussing the ending of the introduction as 'a nobly plangent melodic cell [...] that seems from the very outset to promise a grand but tragic tale' (pp. 58-59), he gives no justification for such a reading. With regard to the work's first theme, he points to an impression of gravity and poignancy that suits the tale about Wallenrod, and invokes the lack of thirds in the chords. In reality, however, notwithstanding the sporadic lack of thirds, chords are much more often complete and contain both a third and a seventh, and so they are of a distinctly functional character. In support of his argument, the author invokes the reception of this Ballade in Chopin's day. However, although the way it was received is in itself an objective phenomenon, it is not necessarily derived from the music. The utterances of influential figures have often been the source of interpretations of various kinds, not always chiming with the composer's intentions. Without negating the possibility of this kind of interpretation, there would seem to be no justification for ascribing them an objective, source-based character.

One crucial element invoked in support of the existence of a specific narration in the Ballade, Op. 38 is an analysis and comparison of vocal ballads, both freestanding and from well-known operas. As Bellman himself writes, 'certain operatic strategies for musical storytelling are as relevant as anything in the instrumental literature to understanding the thick musical context relevant to his [Chopin's] ballades' (p. 98). The author describes the structure of operatic ballads, their function, and the conventions and techniques they employ, and above all he analyses fragments linked to particular content, such as a struggle for freedom or a loss of hope. He compares them with fragments of Chopin's Ballade and, finding a similarity, interprets corresponding fragments of the Ballade in the same semantic terms. This would be persuasive if the similarities were more distinct; especially if the structure, conventions and techniques displayed by the operatic fragments cited in the book were always linked to the music of that period, and exclusively to a single, strictly defined, theme. In fact, however, they appear in music to express emotions of a specific, but quite general, type aroused by various events. So can they really be read in such a semantically unequivocal way?

In his desire to specify the content 'related' by the composer, the author invokes two sources from the period. The first comprises letters from 1839 written by Heinrich Probst, the Paris agent of Breitkopf & Hartel, to the firm's owner, in which he describes the Ballade as Chopin's 'Second Ballade' and as the 'Pilgrims Ballade', referring to Raimbaude's ballad from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable. The other is an article by Felicien Malleville, published on 9 September 1838 in La revue et gazette musicale, in which he calls this work a 'Polish Ballade'; it ensues from the text that this name should be comprehensible to both the composer and his milieu. On this basis, Bellman concludes that the work was received in this way by 'well-informed listeners' even prior to its publication. This is quite likely. The Polish exiles in France were in need of a prophet, of someone who would sing the Polish cause, who would tell of the fortunes of their country and of themselves. At the same time, Chopin is known to have shared the exiles' feelings, longed for his country and suffered greatly on account of his distance from his loved ones and his lack of hope for a return. Therefore, the interpretation of this work in national terms could have arisen within the Polish exile community (but it is unlikely to have come from the composer), and then spread more widely. That does not mean, however, that Chopin himself perceived this work in such a semantically unequivocal way. A composer's experiences and emotions, and the conditions in which he lived, are all reflected in a more or less processed way in his art, and Chopin's personal feelings connected with Poland were extremely important and are undoubtedly expressed in his works. But that does not yet prove that he wanted to 'tell' a specific story here. Of course, one cannot exclude the possibility that Chopin wished to 'tell' the story given by the author or one like it, but that can only be a hypothesis, which we are not able to prove.

It is interesting, as indeed the author notes, that in Poland this Ballade was not perceived in national terms; the Poles back home did not discern in it the martyrdom of the nation or the exiles' nostalgia or an analogy to the operas Bellman cites, although all the operas mentioned were performed at the Warsaw Opera and were well known, at least among the critics. So is this due to differing experiences or to the fact that the work is multivalent and can be subjected to various interpretations?

Worth emphasizing is the faultless portrayal not just of the Polish community in Paris, but of Mickiewicz's works and their interpretation, as well as the brief outline of Polish history included in the work, illuminating the situation and aspirations of Poles at the time the Ballade was composed. Only few minor corrections are here necessary. When quoting a letter sent by Chopin to Auguste Franchomme, the author states that up to 1831 the Polish exiles were called 'northern Frenchmen' (p. 116). That is not true. This was a malicious epithet attached by Chopin to the violinist Antoni Katski, whom Chopin disliked and misprized, and who was not among the exiles following the November Rising. Elsewhere (p. 114), Bellmann states that Mickiewicz identified with the Poles when Lithuania came under Russian rule (nota bene, Mickiewicz was not yet born at that time), and that this identification increased after the fall of the November Rising in 1831. This is not true either. Mickiewicz was a Pole, who was born in Lithuania. And one final correction: in the wake of the Congress of Vienna, Poland was divided up between three partitioning powers, Russia, Prussia and Austria, and not between Russia and Prussia, as the author writes (p. 114).

The semantically unequivocal narrative of the Ballade presented in this book constitutes an interesting, but subjective--in spite of the numerous references to the context in which the work was written--vision of the author. This book is important for our understanding of the work's reception in the Parisian milieu. By showing the Ballade's more or less direct relations with the musical repertoire of Paris at that time and accurately profiling the Polish environment there, its culture and its expectations, and also the fact that the Parisian monde was aware of Chopin's Polish emotions, the author helps us to understand why it was seen as Polish and national. The polyvalence of instrumental music admits various interpretations, yet listeners choose the reading which they most desire and expect.

Zofia Chechlinska

National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin, Warsaw
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Author:Chechlinska, Zofia
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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