More on “truly triple meter” – are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas?

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After a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, some pianist colleagues and I had an ongoing discussion about particular pieces. According to our (my) definition, for a waltz-like piece to be classed as ‘truly triple’, cadences have to fall on the second main beat of a 6/8 bar, or, in 3/4, on the 8th bar of the phrase (otherwise it’s 3/4 “masquerading”, so to speak, as 6/8).

One musician cited Chopin’s Grande valse Op. 18 No. 1 (the finale of Les Sylphides) – is this truly triple, she asked? Well, yes it is. And so are most of the other waltzes. As I mentioned in our Facebook discussion, my composition teacher Malcolm Williamson once praised Chopin’s treatment of the harmony in his waltzes, that is, he’s careful to make sure that it changes in every bar. At the time, I don’t think either Malcolm or I knew enough about waltzing to discuss this from a metrical point of view, the point he was making was about maintaining harmonic interest.  One of Malcolm’s own great waltz tunes (he would probably not thank me for that, since he didn’t want it extracted from the opera as a single number), Thank You, Saint Seraphina, from Our Man in Havana was itself truly triple, which probably reflected his concern for both metric and harmonic interest.

From the little I know from having worked with him, the last thing he wanted was to have to wait in music – harmonic or metric inertia. And that’s the thing about 6/8s, once you know that you’ve arrived on 7, all you’re doing is just waiting for that extra beat. That can be OK sometimes, but in allegro, it’s not great.

Which brings me back to Chopin and the waltz. The  epigraph to chapter 6  of Eric McKee’s Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz is an interesting quote from Chopin

“I have picked up nothing that is essentially Viennese. For example, I can’t dance a waltz properly – that speaks for itself! My piano has heard nothing but mazurkas.”

I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of what waltzing was was too fragile to be able to incorporate it in music. But I wonder if the inherent tripleness of his waltzes is not a question of autonomous compositional technique in the ways that I’ve described it above, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit.

 

 

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