Sunday, 18 March 2012

Chopin's songs

As a songwriter, Chopin is not held to be a master. He is seen as composing them for his own pleasure, writing in a simple vein that's free of subtlety and all that makes him such a special composer when writing for the piano. 

Yet in Moja pieszczotka ('My Joys', Op.74/12) we hear a song in the classic Chopin form of a mazurka which hardly lacks charm. The Polish dance form allies itself here to a French style of song writing that was  to grow into the lighter kind of French opera (in one direction) and the Russian 'romance' (in another).

In Smutna rzeka ('The Sad River', Op.74/3) a lamenting mother is given a plaintive melody in three-bar phrases, again suggesting an undercurrent of Polish folk song. It's a rather beautiful song.

Gdzie lubi ('What She Likes', Op.74/5) is less striking but still charming, again anticipating the Russian 'romance' yet still possessing a Polish flavour and a light sparkle. 

Something of the manner of Schubert is found in Posel ('The Messenger', Op.74/7) where rustic drones and modal accents add flavour to an attractive strophic song. There's even the Schubert-like touch of a nightingale being imitated in the closing bars.

Slavic melancholy fills Nie ma czego trzeba ('I Miss What I Have Not', Op.74/13), a song whose sound also seems to reach deep into Russia's future - an elegiac melody sung over spare chords connected by a sadly lilting piano refrain. 

Precz z moich oczu ('Out Of My Sight', Op.74/6) is just as appealing, having a sentimental character and containing a mild mixture of Italian opera-derived phrases, 'romance' traits and folk-song touches (the latter especially in one of the piano's interludes). As elsewhere, the individuality of Chopin's piano style, as found beyond his songs, is either absent or tamed pretty much beyond recognition - and yet it still gives pleasure. 

The mazurka again lies behind Sliczny Chlopiec ('Handsome Lad, Op.74/8) and gives it freshness - a freshness that if some kind composer of our time were to orchestrate the song might well carry it into many listeners' affections. Such music points towards light Romantic opera of the kind made great by the likes of Smetana and Tchaikovsky. 

Also in mazurka form is Zyczenie ('The Wish', Op.74/1). Domesticated into art song, its disarming simplicity makes it feel warm and friendly. 

Dwojaki koniec ('The Double End', Op.74/11) sets a morbid tale and is more conventional - the sort of poignant romance Tchaikovsky might have composed. 

In Pierscien ('The Ring', Op.74/14) a lovelorn man sings about his sorrows, again in the form of a mazurka - and pleasingly so. 

Poland's suffering inspired Spiew z mogily ('Leaves Are Falling', Op.74/17 - also known as 'Hymn from the Tomb') and fired Chopin's genius to create his strongest song. The piano starts out in a slow mazurka rhythm, introducing the haunting folk-shaped melody with which the singer begins. Elegiac melodic shapes closer to the 'romance' style follow, but dotted rhythms begin to summon a sturdier spirit which springs out in defiance in the song's middle section. This dramatic passage continues with a tense monotone before a strange, obsessively circling figure seizes both performers. The tension breaks into noble optimism but then the return of the opening music reverses the mood back to present sadness. 

The ballad Wojak ('The Warrior', Op.74/10) makes effective use of suggestion in the piano part's use of fanfares and evocations of a horse galloping (again not unlike Schubert).

I'm especially fond of Wiosna ('Spring', Op.74/2), which is lyrical and elegiac and uses the dumka rhythm. It's lovely and proves the power of a sharpened fourth to add a little folk-like magic to a piece. 

Narzeczony ('The Fiancé', Op.74/15) is a dramatic ballad with a striking stormy piano refrain. It makes a strong impression.

Dumka (without opus number) is a sad song but and its repetitive phrases give it a consoling quality that make it particularly winning. 

Also sad in mood is Melodia ('Elegy', Op.74/9), Chopin's last song, composed in an emotionally-charged operatic style. It's a fine piece, striking a deeper note than most of its companions. The piano's introduction is beautiful (with a lovely harmonic move) but a stark intensity pours into the music as the singer begins.

There's nothing elegiac about the charming Hulanka ('Merrymaking', Op.74/4), with its Slavic operetta-style tunefulness and robust, dancing rhythms. 

In Czary ('Enchantment', without opus number) there are mild pleasures to be had from its spry rhythms but it's not one of the better songs.

Finally in Piosenka Litewska ('Lithuanian Song', Op.74/16) Chopin again attractively draws on the spirit of the mazurka, particularly in the piano part. The vocal part conveys the passion of a young woman.

OK, there may be little of the daring and profundity of great Chopin in his nineteen songs but they are far more interesting and enjoyable than their reputation suggests - rather like Mozart's (but that's a story for another day!).

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