From a technical standpoint, time is absolute. Time only feels relative. The next five minutes of my life will not be perceived similarly to those of yours. If time were relative, five minutes in one’s childhood would feel longer than five minutes in one’s adulthood. But let’s talk about a more significant amount of time. Take two years. I can remember parts of my life two years ago, but it all feels so distant. I can recall specific memories; I know they happened, but it is extremely difficult to truly re-immerse myself in the moment. So many experiences, no matter how insignificant, have passed since then, and because of this, it is impossible to accurately repossess my past perception of the world around me. Mentally ‘going back’ would be a very disorienting task. Regardless of whatever your ‘two years’ have consisted of, time is more than just a number; time is measured in experiences.
Chopin’s fourth ballade is widely accepted as his single greatest work. Despite the compressed form of his four ballades (relative to standard large-scale works, such as sonatas, they are a fraction in size, in terms of time), these works are among the most enduring of Chopin’s compositions. Chopin’s fourth ballade is regarded to be the the epitome of his output, and one of the greatest works of the Romantic era. John Ogdon, a 20th century pianist, speaks, “[it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions … It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”
The ballade opens with a completely innocent theme, adorned with a simple alternating accompaniment. These short seven measures will lay the foundation for the gargantuan narrative of the piece. If the Op. 52 Ballade were a human, these measures would be his childhood. After a brief pause, the piece strolls into a melancholic troubled theme, however absent of despair. This section takes on Chopin’s nocturne style, with clear lyricism and carefully placed ornamentation. His mastery of variation from is shown in the easily recognizable, repeated 8-note motif that never wears itself out. The piece carries itself to a brief climax, only to quickly settle down to a repose. I find this section to be representative of the turmoil of the early adulthood.
The major key theme appears again to kindly point out the exaggeration of the preceding tension, only to give way to the development of the minor key theme. It is not readily apparent, but the relative tempo has significantly increased since the beginning of the piece. The second full statement of the 8-note motif is introduced, and this creates an unnerving sense of doubt to be resolved. New variations are created, and Chopin saturates the melodic line with heavy ornamentation. The major key theme appears for the last time as momentum picks up to lead into the coda. What I find especially interesting about this transition is how seamlessly it is done. The fourth ballade is unusually restrained, even for Chopin, and without careful attention, one can feel totally lost when listening to the coda. The music holds its register for serenity and absolute clarity for a moment, without sacrificing momentum, and plunges into five sweeping sets of arpeggios. The ballade reaches a peak of volume as massive chords settle into a brief modulation.
One cannot ignore the tremendous technical difficulty of the double notes when speaking of the coda, but finger-breaking acts aside, Chopin chooses to end the peak of his compositional career by anticipating the style of Johannes Brahms- conservative melodic lines driven by sheer rhythmic momentum. After a very disorienting virtuosic display, the ballade ends decisively in F minor, utilizing the bottom octave F for the final chord, making for a rich sonority. Much can be said about the structure of the coda alone, but I will leave that for another topic of discussion.
In a short twelve minutes, Chopin was able to evoke the drama of an entire (although ambiguous) narrative many composers would have fallen short of, even in a complete sonata. Interpreting music isn’t trying to figure out what to do, it is trying to figure out the possible. A well-trained musician may have forgotten the mood of preceding music by the point of the coda, considering the immediacy of the moment, but he/she will know that the important thing is to decide what to do in the present.
(Video courtesy of ArtMusicRepository, a YouTube channel archive of public domain art music)