Creating in the Arts

The Story of a Polish Ballade

Music Professor Uncovers Story Behind Chopin’s Composition

bellmanStories can be told with words, images, and even gestures. To those with musical expertise, stories can be told in tones as well. Musical compositions have their own vocabularies and narrative strategies, and these have a great deal to tell about the cultural conditions in which such works were produced.

Although the story a musical composition tells is not always clear at first blush, a close inspection of its narrative structure can illuminate its meaning. A recently written book by UNC Professor of Music Jonathan Bellman, titled “Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 As Narrative of National Martyrdom,” helps to unravel the mysteries behind Frédéric Chopin’s Second Ballade. Chopin, a Warsaw composer and virtuoso pianist, is considered to be one of the great masters of Romantic music. He composed this ballade between the years of 1836 to 1839, completing it on the Spanish island of Majorca. In his book, Dr. Bellman critically analyzes Chopin’s Second Ballade, uncovering a powerfully nationalistic story.

Dr. Bellman originally encountered the ballade as an undergraduate university student, and he became captivated with the peculiar structure of the piece. Adding to the fascination was the fact that his girlfriend at the time (now wife, Dr. Deborah Kauffman of UNC’s School of Music) played it in her senior recital. Later, in the course of his graduate study, he became further intrigued as he observed scholars analyzing it while failing to reach any kind of agreement. Superb piece of music + mystery = scholarly obsession.

Because music not only tell stories but also offers glimpses into the culture of its own time, Dr. Bellman’s careful analysis, which integrates biographical, historical, and musical contexts, provides a coherent account of Chopin’s ballade. Focusing on the work’s style was key, because it turns out that there are strong connections, associations recognized by Chopin’s contemporaries, with certain operas — those in which an idealized past was ruined by subsequent disasters. As it happened, Chopin wrote his ballade shortly after his native Poland was crushed by a Russian invasion, a circumstance that affected him deeply. Not coincidentally, the successive sections in the ballade — beginning with a pastoral scene and progressing through a ferocious storm, tentative return to the pastoral scene, increasingly troubled unrest, return to the storm and a final catastrophe — reflect the dramatic trajectory by which Poland virtually ceased to exist as a political entity at the beginning of the 1830s. Chopin had been encouraged by many of his friends to compose an actual opera, and so what materializes in the ballade is an opera for piano, a composition that uses the dramatic gestures and narrative strategies of contemporary operas, idealized and integrated, to tell the story of Poland’s suffering. In support of his analysis, Dr. Bellman uncovered largely forgotten evidence that several perceptive contemporaries of Chopin had recognized as evocative historical themes in the masterpiece.

One of the main implications of Dr. Bellman’s research is the need to focus on unique works and their musical languages rather than the larger generic groups. Musical works are often categorized by genre instead of being portrayed as individual stories or statements, so that “Brahms’s symphonies” or “Beethoven’s piano sonatas” tend to be viewed with an eye toward the commonalities between them rather than those elements that make each individual work unique. Because of the stories being told, such works can be compared to literature, with the difference being that Shakespeare’s plays or Hemingway’s novels get studied oneat a time, whereas musical works are often over-generalized without identifying their distinct properties.

arts1The analysis that Dr. Bellman has conducted yields advice. For the general listener trying to understand classic musical pieces, Dr. Bellman emphasizes the importance of informed listening. Works are composed in musical languages specific to their own time and place, and individual listeners interpret compositions somewhat differently. Musical languages change from one decade to the next; hence, the same kind of musical and cultural vocabulary does not apply to Renaissance church music, classical symphonies, Romantic virtuoso piano music, and modernism. Thus, listeners can learn as much as possible about musical languages while attending to their own personal responses. They can also become as familiar as possible with elements of musical expression (e.g., the tempo, dynamics, and style of compositions) and consider them while enjoying a musical performance.

An informed appreciation for music obviously takes considerable knowledge. Yet everyone can start somewhere. Dr. Bellman encourages motivated novices.

“Just keep listening. In other words, we learn to understand music best as we learn to understand other languages: by immersion.”