The ballade is a large-scale masterpiece. It is a form of music that Chopin, himself, invented. In this sense, it is an exceptional application of his talent. By way of the music’s highly expressive nature, Chopin communicated emotions of every extreme. He made use of lyrical and structural technique in order to craft a very powerful form of music. The ballades mark the highest level of maturity of his musical development.
A typical Chopin ballade begins with a sweet, lyrical melody. The music’s nature then becomes more forlorn, and the melody is thereby fantastically developed. The same musical material experiences a variety of changes, as the mood shifts (almost, at times, abruptly) from elation to desolation, from fury to endurance. The ballades are very difficult in terms of both musicality and technicality. They are regular among the repertoires of modern pianists.
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
James Huneker called this epic narrative “the odyssey of Chopin’s soul.” Chopin began his first ballade in Vienna and finished it in Paris, in 1836. He dedicated it to Monsieur le Baron de Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France. The piece is a glowing masterpiece. The great lyrical theme, stated in three different forms, is intoxicating. The fantastic work concludes with a coda of elemental power, culminating in a chilling downward chromatic passage in octaves, which will electrify any receptive listener.
The first questioning theme is heard again, and with a perpendicular roar the presto comes upon us. For two pages the dynamic energy displayed by the composer is almost appalling. A whirlwind I have called it elsewhere. It is a storm of the emotions, muscular in its virility. I remember de Pachmann—a close interpreter of certain sides of Chopin—playing this coda piano, pianissimo and prestissimo. The effect was strangely irritating to the nerves, and reminded me of a tornado seen from the wrong end of an opera glass. According to his own lights the Russian virtuoso was right: his strength was not equal to the task, and so, imitating Chopin, he topsy-turveyed the shading. It recalled Moscheles’ description of Chopin’s playing: “His piano is so softly breathed forth that he does not require any strong forte to produce the wished for contrast.”
– James Huneker
Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38
Robert Schumann dedicated his Kreisleriana (Op. 16) to Chopin. Returning the honour, Chopin dedicated his second ballade to his German companion. He composed it in Majorca, in 1838. A work of perfect proportion, it opens with a slow and magical episode that quickly turns into a tempest, presto con fuoco, a wild, magnificent outburst. In the words of composer Alan Rawsthorne, at the end of the coda the andantino theme becomes “a whispered reminder of the very opening,” which “vibrates in the memory.”
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin composed the third ballade in 1841, and he dedicated it to Mademoiselle Pauline de Noailles. This piece is the essence of charm and warmth, with a sense of irony that surrounds the second subject. Frederick Niecks, Chopin’s first important biographer, said, “a quiver of excitement runs through the whole piece… There is suffused a most exquisite elegance.” The slender second subject becomes a development section, “one of the most powerful Chopin ever composed,” says Rawsthorne; “one is quite staggered to look back at its winsome origins.” The coda, he continues, ends in “a blaze of light.”
Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Chopin composed the fourth ballade in 1842 and dedicated it to Madame la Baronne C. Nathaniel de Rotschild. It is generally agreed to be one of the sublime works of Romantic music. For John Ogdon, it is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Huneker calls its chief theme a “melody which probes the very coverts of the soul.” He compares it to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, while Ogdon speaks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, inviting us to a “Romantic communion of unbelievable intensity.”
The fourth ballade remains a narrative but has an inimitable feeling of intimacy and Slavonic colouring, and demands of the interpreter a delicate rubato and a virtuoso technique. It culminates in a coda of bone-crushing technical severity.