During the Baroque period (c. 1600-1750) suites of instrumental music with each movement based on the characteristics of a particular dance were popular. The considerations for composers would include: how many beats in a bar? what speed? any notable rhythms? — elements that gave each dance its individual flavour. It’s difficult to imagine more recent composers creating suites out of the Mosh, the Pogo, the Mashed Potato and the Funky Chicken, but composers have generally welcomed the opportunity to preserve the memory of older dances such as the minuet, the gigue and the sarabande.
So, as a vehicle for exploring less well known pieces and their creators, I thought we could focus on one particular dance from yesteryear: the polonaise. Sometimes known as the polacca, the polonaise had its roots in the music of Poland; indeed, its name is the French translation of ‘Polish’. Chopin, a particularly celebrated Polish composer, left us a wonderful set of polonaises as one of the vehicles for displaying pianistic skills, but our focus in this blog will be on others.
The basic DNA of a polonaise is that it has three beats in a bar (similar to a waltz); the melody would often contain dotted rhythms (long-short note combinations); and both the melody and accompaniment often used stock rhythms, repeated from piece to piece, especially a ‘rum-ti-ti, tum-tum, tum-tum’ pattern. You may make your own judgment as to whether such a template was observed as time progressed, as we’ll hear examples of polonaises from across the centuries.We’ll start with music by the French composer Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894), who spent most of his life as an administrator in the Ministry of the Interior in Paris, devoting himself fully to music only for the last 14 years of his life. He also rather famously declared: “My first concern is to do as I please, seeking above all to give rein to my individuality; my second is not to be a damned bore.” His Fête polonaise certainly fits that framework. It opens the Second Act ballroom scene of his comic opera Le roi malgré lui (The Reluctant King), that presents the aftermath of the Polish people’s election of a French noble to be their king.
Le roi malgré lui (8.554248)
Reflecting more closely the template for the dance, not least in the rhythm of the accompaniment, is the Polonaise from one of Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) more popular operas, Eugene Onegin. Dances play a significant role in the work, with a waltz, mazurka and polka all used at important dramatic points. The Polonaise opens Act III with a scene of a grand ball. Written in 1877, the ebullient music belies Tchaikovsky’s real-life state at the time — his disastrous attempt at marriage, separation, attempted suicide and a brief self-imposed exile abroad.
Eugene Onegin (8.556652)
We turn now to Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling (1904-1985), one of the composers of the ‘lost generation’ in Germany whose career was greatly affected by the course of history. Considered one of the country’s most promising talents as a young man, the Third Reich and Second World War proved destructive turning-points, and after the war any music based on tonality was held by dogmatic opinion-makers to be ‘anachronistic’.
Schwarz-Schilling’s compact Polonaise for orchestra bears the subtitle ‘Pyrmonter Kurmusik’. Composed in 1936 as a light, yet sophisticated piece for the Pyrmont Music Festival, it was conceived as an occasional work that Schwarz-Schilling might also use in order to pay creative tribute to the homeland of his wife, Dusza von Hakrid, an excellent concert pianist from Poland. The rhythmically jagged outer sections frame a quieter central section. The work was premiered on 28 August 1936. There was no second performance until the premiere recording of the work in 2011 by the Staatskapelle Weimar conducted by José Serebrier, which we can now hear. Schwarz-Schilling left the following comment on the score of the Polonaise: “Unrevised score, no definitive version! Not to be published!”
‘Pyrmonter Kurmusik’ (8.572801)
Wilhelm Bernhard Molique was born in Nuremberg in 1802. After studying with Pietro Rovelli and Louis Spohr he soon became famous as a violinist and, as such, completed several concert tours in Europe before eventually settling in London, where he was appointed professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Molique regarded the flute as highly as he did the violin, and the music we will hear was probably composed during his London years. It’s the final section of his Introduction, Andante and Polonaise, marked Alla polacca, and consisting of a theme with eight variations that continuously develop the flute figurations against the piano accompaniment. Mendelssohn called Molique’s a “racing” style. See if you agree.
Alla polacca (CDS104)
Next, a piano work by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), his Polonaise Op. 21. It was the only work with a ‘Polonaise’ title that he composed, when he was 25, about to be married, and a client of the patron-publisher Mitrofan Belyayev. At that time in his life, Chopin was Scriabin’s idol, as you may tell when you hear this performance.
Polonaise Op. 21 (8.570412)
We’ll end with a polonaise for solo piano and orchestra written in 1831. Not, as you might think, the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise by Chopin (1810-1849) but the Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 174 by the German composer Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838). Ries’ life often intersected with Beethoven’s. Both composers’ families had a long connection with the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne in Bonn. Ries studied the piano and violin with his father, who himself taught Beethoven and helped the latter’s family after their mother’s death. Ries studied briefly with Peter von Winter in Munich and then spent a period in Vienna, where he had piano lessons from Beethoven and lessons in theory and composition from Albrechtsberger. He established himself as an interpreter of Beethoven’s music, assisting him in various ways as a copyist and proof-reader.
Maybe in this work by Ries you will pick up allusions to both Beethoven and Chopin, its style seeming to occupy both sides of the fence between late classicism and early romanticism.
Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 174 (8.557844)
Featured image: Polonez Pod Gołym Niebem (Korneli Szlegel / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)