Frédéric Chopin: Three Mazurkas, Op. 59

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center, August 17, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

A mazurka is a Polish dance named for the Mazovia region: in a triple meter, it moves the accent to the second or third beat, like a waltz with a hitch in the middle. This characteristic rhythm can be brought to nearly any tempo, resulting in a taxonomy of traditional mazurkas from the exhausting oberekto the slinky kujawiak.

On November 1, 1830, the young Chopin left Warsaw for a concert tour to Vienna and was abroad during the November Uprising against the Russian Empire. Months later, Chopin traveled to Stuttgart, where he was shocked to learn that the Polish rebellion had failed. He then made his way to Paris, joining thousands of Polish exiles, including many writers, artists, and musicians.

Chopin wrote all his mature mazurkas in exile, reinterpreting a Polish folkdance for performance in Parisian salons and publishing them  in Western Europe. The three Op. 59 Mazurkas are relatively late works, written in 1845, fifteen years after he last stepped foot on Polish soil (to which he would never return).

The Mazurka in A Minor begins with a melody alone, then a halting accompaniment gradually insinuates itself. The Mazurka in A-flat Major begins with a firm pulse and a simple tune, but grows more fanciful as the music unfolds. Chopin gave the manuscript for this mazurka to Felix Mendelssohn, who gifted it to his wife, Cécile. Mendelssohn had written to Chopin to ask, quite charmingly: “Would you out of friendship write a few bars of music, sign your name at the bottom to show you wrote them for my wife, and send them to me? … Her favorite works are those you have written.” Finally, the Mazurka in F-sharp Minor is an example of a fast mazurka, whirling in its outer sections, but slowing and hesitating in the middle, like an ecstatic dancer distracted by inward thoughts.