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Four Mazurkas, op. 67

April 23, 2017: Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano; Warren Jones, piano

Chopin’s elaboration of dance forms raised them to a high art, and he brought special prominence to the dances related to his native Poland—the mazurka and the polonaise. The mazurka, named for the Mazur people of Mazovia, is one of several turning dances for couples, typically in triple meter like the waltz. Three types of folk dances share the designation: the masur or masurek of lively, sometimes fiery character; the obertas or oberek of faster tempo and merrier character; and the kujawiak, a slow dance from the Kujawy region often in the minor mode and melancholy in expression. All share a basic rhythm that shifts the accent unsystematically to the second or third beat of the measure. Chopin composed over fifty mazurkas, typically in simple ternary form and sometimes adopting the traditional phrase structure of two or four sections of six or eight measures, each repeated.

The Four Mazurkas, op. 67, were published posthumously in 1855, bringing together four pieces written at different times in the composer’s life. No. 1 in G major he is said to have copied into an album of Anna Młokosiewicz in 1835, when she and her father were “taking the waters” in Karlovy Vary, but he may have written it much earlier, possibly in Vienna or even Warsaw. It merrily unfolds in a simple ternary form with bounding dance characteristics point that seem to suggest an earlier time.

The Mazurka in G minor, placed second in the posthumous collection, is the last mazurka Chopin wrote. (Jeffrey Kallberg has shown that the unfinished F minor Mazurka, op. 68, no. 4, was not his last, as previously thought.) He likely composed it after his return to Paris from Scotland, in the winter of 1848 or the spring of 1849, a time of great loneliness and rapidly sinking health. A wistful melody marks the outer sections, contrasted by a livelier central section with chromatic sequencing, leaping grace notes, and a recitative-like passage leading back to the opening. The piece shows the “new simplicity” of many of his late works.

The manuscript of No. 3, in C major, belonged to a Mme. Hoffmann, possibly the writer Kelmentyna (née Tańska), but there was also an Adelina Hoffman who owned a ladies’ fashion shop in Warsaw who could have been its recipient. Composed in 1835, the piece features an easily swinging nostalgia in its outer sections surrounding a brief interlude of hesitating chordal phrases.

The Opus 67 set closes with the Mazurka in A minor, for which three versions exist. The earliest manuscript, dated 1846, once belonged to Brahms. Chopin clearly favored the key of A minor for melancholic or contemplative expression in his Mazurkas, for he composed seven in that key. Again in A-B-A form, this mazurka’s outer sections feature delicately ornamented melodic lines that often end in a descent or in seeming resignation. By contrast the middle section provides sunnier tunefulness, if still touched by moments of yearning.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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