This is music that tells a story—not a specific story, but one that emerges at the intersection of the imaginations of the composer, performer, and listener. While Frédéric Chopin’s nocturnes and waltzes sing and dance, and his études and preludes work out somewhat more academic ideas of technique and harmony, his four ballades have a narrative, literary bent. Chopin was the first composer to name a piano piece “Ballade,” suggesting both the medieval tradition of sung storytelling and the Romantic genre of narrative poetry. In a conversation with his colleague Robert Schumann, Chopin mentioned that he had been particularly inspired by the work of the Polish poet and dramatist Adam Mickiewicz, though direct parallels be- tween the music and particular poems have generally been discounted.
From the very opening, there is something elusive about the melodic ideas themselves: the magic is in their devel- opment, and the drama is in their arrangement. Themes and accompaniment blur into each other; harmonies and sonorities take surprising twists. At the very climax, a fortississimo cadence is followed by a gliding pianissimo fragment: then the pianist rips into a blistering conclusion.
Chopin wrote the Fourth Ballade between 1842–43, working partly in Paris and partly at Nohant, the country home of his partner, the novelist George Sand.