Tag Archives: Chopin

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


I’m not saying that Chopin couldn’t write a waltz, or that his embodied sense of  waltzing 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 pure compositional technique, but a difficulty in shaking off an ingrained Mazurka habit. In other words, are Chopin’s waltzes really mazurkas in all but name? 

This thought came out of a previous post about triple metre and waltzes, after which 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.

Conversations with Malcolm lead me to think that he didn’t like to wait in music, in the sense of 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.”

In the light of this comment, those waltzes make rather more sense to me viewed as mazurkas, or waltzes with a mazurka feel, at the very least. 


Playing for ballet class tips #10: Phrase clearly

Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu (middle section). It sounds like an ordinary phrase but it isn't.

It’s beautiful, but don’t do this in the studio. Anticipating the opening B flat of the next phrase a whole beat early is compositional genius, but likely to be off-putting in a class.

I always used to think how amazing it is the way that dancers pick up exercises so quickly:  a teacher rattles through a list of steps in ballet shorthand, says ‘and’, the music starts,  and then off they go. Amazing. But just watch what happens when a pianist is unclear with their phrasing, by changing harmony in an unexpected part of an eight-bar phrase, improvising shapelessly over an almost unchanging harmonic structure, or playing in a rhythmically erratic way. The hardiest of dancers will battle on regardless, but many will begin to look unsure of what they’re doing.  It may not fall apart completely, but the first casualty will be confidence: it’s very difficult to start a movement decisively if you’re not sure whether you’re at the end of a phrase or the beginning.

In other words, don’t underestimate the contribution of clear, well-shaped musical phrasing over a steady beat to your dancers’ capacity to remember the exercise, particularly in adage. Here’s what I mean by clear phrasing:

  • Play everything as if you’re singing
  • Breathe – literally –  between phrases. If you can’t breathe between phrases, you’re not playing the right kind of music.
  • Articulate everything – delineate subphrases as well as the big ones.
  • Avoid confusing or ambiguous melodies (like the Chopin example from the Fantaisie Impromptu illustrated above)
  • Shape the phrase with the dynamics of the left hand. Imagine you’re playing for a singer that has no capacity for expression, and you have to save the show with the accompaniment.
  • Use the kind of rubato where your accompaniment is rock steady, but the melody has freedom

It’s rather ironic that those three things I call ‘unclear’ are to some extent highly prized in the world of classical music: breaking conventions and  doing the unexpected; recitative-like improvisation as an expression of individual freedom; extreme rubato as a symbol of individual expression.  That may explain why playing for class is regarded as a very low form of musical life, yet very few classically trained musicians are any good at it.