Chopin Ballade no 1 op 23 in G minor Analysis

Hello reader, and welcome to beethoman.com. Today, I am going to talk about, perhaps one of the most popular piano compositions that has ever been written. It is the Ballade Op 23 in G minor by Frederic Chopin. This piece occasionally appeared in my life throughout my entire studies (2010-2015). It is especially precious to me because it was the first piece from the Romantic era that I completely analyzed by myself. It was the harmonic analysis. Nevertheless, it was my pleasure to analyze this piece, as much as it would have been pleasure to a pianist to perform this magnificent piece of music.

There is a certain level of mysticism in this Ballade Op 23 however. From the very first listening a careful listener could be in the position to recognize the strange change of characters throughout the musical flow. Isn’t that intriguing? How is it possible for all these different characters to coexist in such a dense piece, one might ask themselves. Well, I’ll try to answer on this and some other questions, and perhaps, find new ones to ask so someone else can answer them. Now, to be in a position to understand why something happened, one must know all of the aspects of the event. Having that said, the first question that arises is – what exactly is a ballad as a genre?

Ballade Op 23 in G minor – Prelude to Ballade

For a composer of the Romantic era, especially early Romantic era, a shift towards intimacy was an imperative. Ballade was peculiarly significant genre in that terms, since it possessed unusual combination of different characters which depicted the most subtle feelings. It owes its origin to the English and Scottish folk-songs of epic and lyric characters which does not have any resembles with the popular medieval French and Italian ballade. This Northern type of the ballade sang about war exploits and heroes. It turned legends to verses and it was serious, dark, bleak and full of mysticism and fantasy. There wasn’t a fixed form for this type of the ballade, and it will be very important later in the analysis of Chopin’s work.

Because of its imminence to the legends and the motifs from the ancient past with a vivid character, ballade was quite a tempting genre in the Romanticism. The Poets and the composers equally cherished it. Firstly, it found its place in the songs for piano and voice. However, Chopin translated it to the field of instrumental music, and piano became the next main medium.

Chopin and Mickiewicz

At the beginning of the 19th century, a large nationalistic movement has begun across the Europe. Poland was not an exception. Adam Mickiewicz was a Polish poet whose literary works inspired many nationalistic movements in Poland, Lithuania and Belorussia in their fights for the independence. Chopin’s music on the other hand was the greatest example of the Polish national style. Moreover, Chopin has been reading Mickiewicz’s works since his youth, and these works, at one point, became the revolutionary hymns of the Polish youth. Chopin was distinctly against the literary substrate in his works however. Nevertheless, he takes the epic and fantastic characters from Mickiewicz’s poetry and translates them into the pure instrumental music. Chopin wanted to evoke the poetic atmosphere and unrealistic nature of the world of the legends. Such a procedure however, on a deeper level had the ambition to depict realistic events.

Perhaps the strongest proof that can justify the previous statement will be the historical context of the Ballade Op 23 in G minor. It was composed in 1831 (published in 1836) while Chopin was in Wien. It depicts the composer’s nostalgia for his homeland, since Poland was in the uprising against the Russian empire at that time. There are even some assumptions that Mickiewicz’s poem “Konrad Wallenrod” was the direct inspiration for the Ballade Op 23. However, this will probably remain unconfirmed for the rest of the eternity.

Colorized Chopin - Ballade Op 23
Frederic Chopin Source: @hadikarimi.art

Ballade Op 23 in G minor – Tragedy All the Way

Now, how did the suffering and struggling get portrayed in Chopin’s Ballade Op 23 in G minor? Long story short, it was done through the harmonic and formal procedures. I am about to dive into more detailed analysis here though. Sonata form of this piece has some serious specificities in it. These specificities are there for a good reason. Their existence is necessary for reaching the essential dramaturgic level. In the following text I will analyze these key sections of the musical flow. I hope that by the end of the article your comprehension of the Ballade Op 23 will be at least slightly clearer and more complete.

The Introduction

The first key section occurs at the very beginning of the piece (introduction in the formal scheme). To begin the composition with an arpeggiated Neapolitan sixth chord in octaves was exceptionally bold decision, even for early romanticism. This segment draws attention because of its uniqueness. However, theoretic analysis often does not offer any interpretation of this phenomenon. Tempo mark Largo, expressive mark pesante which dyes the music flow with its burden and dynamics that goes from f to p suggest the lyrical character. Nevertheless, after the opening solemn expression it shifts towards the tragic one. That change could be understood as a prophetic sign of the inevitable tragedy whose story this piece of music wants to tell us.

Such an introduction, in terms of the ballade genre which has a narrator and Chopin as a composer of refined poetics, may indicate the existence of a narrator in the pure instrumental music. Someone who talks about the event from the distance, the last survivor of the horrible tragedy – someone who possess the entire knowledge, someone who knows the secret of the whole story. Despite the traditional emotional detachment in terms of the words which narrator speaks, it is not the case here. Chromaticism in the 3th measure indicates the lost of composure, marked by the direct conflict between the flat second scale degree and the leading tone (Example 1).

Example 1

Chopin Ballade Op 23 Example 1
Introduction of the Ballade Op. 23 in G minor

By opening the composition with a Neapolitan sixth chord, musical flow enters the subdominant sphere, which in the complete harmonic progression provides development. However, the Phrygian sphere in general has a very specific semantic connotation – the evocation of the death. Having that said, this Neapolitan sixth chord opened a very tragic story.

“Once Upon a Time…”

Another key section can be found in the 8th measure. It is the dominant function that separates two segments of the musical flow. On one hand, it marks the end of the introduction in which it seems the narrator was saying: “Once upon a time…” as Theodor W. Adorno described the Fourth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. On the other hand, it creates the anticipation of the whole story. Its power comes from its structure. Less skillful composer would almost certainly have used a simple dominant (seventh) chord. However, Chopin knew the distinctiveness that dominant seventh chord with flat six possess was much needed for the chord of such a role. Here in Serbia, such chord is also known as the “Chopin’s chord” because of its vast usage in Chopin’s music.

The Waltz

The third key section relates to the main theme of the sonata form. Tempo mark has been changed to Moderato, as well as time signature – 4/4 to 6/4. This change is quite significant as we shall see in a minute. Moreover, there’s an evident distinction between the poetry-like melody in the upper textural layer and the perfectly voice-leading accompaniment in the lower one. These traits of the musical expression suggest lyrical character dyed with nostalgia and melancholy, potentially even tragedy in the context of the previous event. The main theme of the Ballade Op 23 does not have baroque nor classical origin however. It is an original achievement of the Romantic era. What emerges as the final result is the Waltz – a symbol of the 19th century aristocratic society.

There is one thing though. The Waltz was placed into the area of G minor key (tonal center). You see, the Waltzes of that time in minor keys were quite rare. Whenever a Waltz was in a minor key it had a strong semantic value. Like this one for example. The idea of tragedy permanently emerges throughout the musical flow, even in the noble Waltz.

The “Promised Land" in Ballade Op 23

Yet another key section is the subordinate theme. Expressive/tempo mark meno mosso suggests tempo alteration. Musical flow becomes a little slower in comparison to the previous transition, which had especially emphasized dramatic character. Moreover, in the subordinate theme textural organization reveals two layers, similar to one evident in the main theme. An arpeggiated chords can be found in the lower textural layer and the melody can be found in the upper one. Musical flow modulated to E-flat Major, which is again subdominant key in relation to original G minor. My opinion is that Chopin wanted to expand the narrative flow.

There’s the one interesting harmonic progression which beautifully depicts an early romantic style (Example 2). After the cadential process in measure (DOPIŠI TAKT), tonic pedal point arises. Tonic function is then followed with V7-IIV7-iv-I chords under the tonic pedal point. That minor subdominant chord is such a powerful trait of the Romantic era harmony. The subordinate theme evokes the pastoral character, which, in my opinion, has a specific semantic role in this case. It is trying to represent “The Promised Land” as a salvation in contrast to the main theme.

Example 2

Chopin Ballade Op 23 Example 2
The pedal point in the subordinate theme

The Development

The development part of the sonata form emphasizes further evolution of the thematic material from both themes. Musical flow changes their characters. The main change occurs in the thematic material of the main theme, which receives tragic character, while the thematic material of the subordinate theme stays within the lyrical character with pathetic overtone added. I think that it is quite important to stress out the fact that the  development uses A minor and A Major as two pivotal keys. Both of them are still in the subdominant sphere of tonalities compared to the original G minor. Having said that, the musical flow is still postponing any hint of the possible end.

Besides these two pivotal keys, the musical flow modulates to C-sharp minor and G-sharp minor before it enters the E-flat Major where the episode theme will appear. In the episode theme an extremely popular progression characteristic to romantic harmony occurs – ii seventh chord borrowed from E-flat harmonic Major and dominant ninth chord (Example 3). At the end of the episode theme there’s a very important procedure. For the first time musical flow enters dominant sphere keys by modulating to B Major and F-sharp minor. These keys, even though very distant from the original G minor are in mediant relationship with it. By entering the dominant sphere, the very first notion of the end is stated. The layout of the themes in the recapitulation will play a significant role in the musicalization of the end.

Example 3

Chopin Ballade Op 23 Example 3
Progression characteristic to romantic harmony

The Beginning of The End in the Ballade Op 23

The recapitulation reveals the complete idea of the Ballade Op 23 in G minor. The idea which has been developing throughout the whole piece will now become obvious. Reversed recapitulation, which keeps its home key, perhaps has the biggest significance for achieving the idea . This procedure is very important and has extremely significant role in the whole dramaturgical context of the piece.

Earlier I talked about semantic importance of the subordinate theme as the “Promise Land”, Arkadia in the pastoral sense, a place of an idyllic life. In the recapitulation, the subordinate theme should represent the apotheosis, the transcendence and the salvation from the tragic outcome. However, I think that Chopin was aware, from the very beginning, that tragedy cannot be avoided. Perhaps that was the reason why he decided to use a reversed recapitulation. He wanted to boost the expressive charge even further. Any other solution would be disastrous for the musical expression. The final tragedy would be mitigated by the failed apotheosis, and the final result would be permanently destroyed musical expression as well as the esthetic value of it.

The analysis of the subordinate theme in the recapitulation reveals that the musical flow retains its lyrical basis. However, its expression is evidently pathetic, stressed with ff dynamics, octave doublings, parallel thirds and sixths, emphasizing the inevitability of the tragic outcome. By keeping its original key (E-flat Major), the subordinate theme only underlines the pathetic character. Completely conscious of the hopelessness, yet still hopes for a miracle. With the acceptance of its defeat, the subordinate theme enables the main theme to reach its full potential which will proclaim the complete tragedy of the outcome. Permeated with tension, the lyrical character of the main theme was replaced by the tragic one in the recapitulation.

The Final End

At the end of it all, there’s the coda which contains the final key sections which will round the whole piece. The first key section implies a short modulation to A-flat Major, the Phrygian key in relation to the original G minor. As I stated earlier, Phrygian sphere evokes the death. This procedure eliminates any doubt in the inevitability of the tragic outcome. On the other hand, cataclysmic motion in the last measures of the piece, stressed with fff dynamics and accelerando, as well as the crescendo mark only emphasizes the previous statement (Example 4). The final word has finally been said.

Example 4

Chopin Ballade Op 23 Example 4a

Like This Post?

I hope you gained something from this analysis. Ballade Op 23 really means a lot to me and every time I listen to it I can develop a new tragic story in my head. Having these things on my mind, imagination becomes even more vivid. What is your favorite part of the Ballade Op. 23? Do you create stories in your head while listening to this piece? Please tell me in the comment section.

If you like the article, please consider to share it with your friends, colleagues and everyone that might be interested in this kind of topic. If you want to read how Sibelius “painted” The Far North, click here. Until the next reading, stay safe and enjoy music!

References:

  • Bakst, James. Polish National Influences in Chopin’s Music, The Polish Review, Vol. 7., No. 4., (Autumn, 1962) pp. 55-68
  • Berger, Karol. the Form of Chopin’s „Ballade“ Op. 23, 19-th Century Music, Vol. 20., No. 1., (Summer, 1996), pp. 46-71
  • Björling, David. Chopin and the G minor Ballade, Lulea Tekniska Universitet, 2002
  • Keefer, Dr. Lubov. The Influence of Adam Mickiewics on the Ballades of Chopin, American Slavic and East Review, Vol. 5., No. ½ (May, 1946) pp. 38-50
  • Klein, Michael. Chopin’s Fourth Ballade as Musical Narrative, Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 26., No. 1., (Spring 2004), pp. 23-56
  • Malaev, Garun. Svrha analitičke tehnike, Muzička teorija i analiza 1, FMU, Beograd, 2004
  • Samson, Jim. Chopin: the Four Ballades, Cambridge University Press, 1992
  • Samson,Jim. Chopin and Genre, Music Analysis, Vol. 8., No. 3., (Oct. 1989) pp. 213-231

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