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A Pole in Paris

In 2010, the bicentenary of Chopin's birth, Warsaw spearheaded a year-long festival – not to propagate Chopin’s music but, according to culture minister Bogdan Zdrojewski, ‘to present an image of Poland today to the world, through the music of Chopin’. Poland was not only celebrating its most famous son: it was appropriating him as a symbol of national identity.Throughout his life Chopin turned for inspiration to Polish national dances. His first composition was a polonaise and he is said to have dictated a mazurka on his deathbed. For the most part, however, this was achieved at a distance from Poland. Chopin moved to Paris at the age of 19 to broaden his musical horizons and quickly became a darling of the musical salons there. Yet within a month of his arrival came the November Uprising of 1831 back in his homeland. Chopin’s friend and confidant Tytus Woyciechowski, who had travelled to Paris with him, returned to Poland to enlist, while Chopin remained in Paris. 

Ever the brilliant player and improviser, Chopin fell in with the right aristocratic circles, enabling him to command high fees for lessons (and to pay for the ‘carriages and white gloves’ without which ‘one would not be in good taste’). He may also have seen his move to Paris as a kind of homecoming, honouring the roots of his French-born father, Nicholas.

But displacement makes the heart grow fonder and Chopin was still an outsider in Paris, championing Poland’s cause from afar. He was able to underline the plight of his country by his willingness to ‘Europeanise’ and popularise the Polish dances beloved of his childhood, especially in his sets of Polonaises and Mazurkas. Adapted for salon performances, these now drew on a heady concoction of exoticism, nostalgic sentiment and nationalistic fervour that touched on the cornerstones of the Romanticism spirit. Especially after his move to Paris, Chopin’s Polonaises intensified in expression, broadened in form and gathered in military and heroic rhetoric. In some cases, they are so stirring as to suggest narrative drama, as in the middle section of the Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53. Here a fast repeating scalic left-hand pattern in octaves transforms through its many repetitions from disquieting rumble to a shuddering onslaught: a show of Polish might – at least in spirit – that at the same time offered the kind of enthralling virtuosic display that was de rigueur.

As much as Chopin’s themes were in fact à la polonaise – Polish-flavoured, if you like – they stem from a first-hand knowledge, and deep love, of genuine Polish tunes. (Chopin was scathing when the likes of the Austrian Herz composed fantasies on so-called Polish airs, ‘to entice the public’.)

The same goes for his 57 published Mazurkas. The tunes retained their peasant roots – Chopin being a stickler for the properly accented rhythm, involving fluctuations that caused some to hear four beats to the bar, rather than the notated three. But they breathe within painterly frames of wistfulness, spell-binding charm and European-style harmonic adventures remote from anything heard in rural Poland.

However much Chopin embraced the sophisticated music and society of Europe, and though he never returned to his homeland, the spirit of Poland never left him. And tellingly, while he was buried in Paris, his heart was taken to be interred in Warsaw, where it remains to this day.

Listen to Chopin's Mazurkas on Primephonic.