Chopin the Storyteller

Telling stories through purely instrumental music is a crucial idea for musical romanticism. Chopin contributed a lot to its development.

By The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The Battle at Ostrołęka The Battle at Ostrołęka (1831) by Jan Chrzciciel KiszwalterThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Stories can be told by paintings, but they can also be told by music.  

The Battle at OstrołękaThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

In works of that kind musical motifs were sometimes accompanied by literal explication of their meanings.  

The Battle at Ostrołęka The Battle at Ostrołęka (1831) by Jan Chrzciciel KiszwalterThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The simplest example of musical storytelling can be found in piano or orchestral works that related battles to their listeners.

The Battle at OstrołękaThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Before the invention of cinematography, music was a powerful tool to evoke images. 

The soundscape of a battleground with its trumpet signals, the boom of guns and the clash of arms was particularly easy to emulate in the sounds of music. 

Karol Kurpiński (1859) by Maksymilian FajansThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The Battle of Mozhaysk (Borodino)

One of such spectacular works was composed by a popular Warsaw composer Karol Kurpiński who also conducted the first performances of Fryderyk Chopin’s Piano concerto in F minor

Karol Kurpiński, The Battle of Mozhaysk - VI Battle
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Listen to the sounds of Napoleon’s soldiers defeating the Russians during the battle of Borodino. 

Recalling motifs

Kurpiński not only composed works that spoke to listeners imagination but also theorized about the so-called recalling motifs: musical citations or allusions carrying a specific meaning.

Dąbrowski's Mazurka (1835) by Fryderyk ChopinThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The melodies of Poland

There were multiple melodies that reminded the listeners of Poland and its desire for independence. 

Dąbrowski's Mazurka
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Dąbrowski's Mazurka, a current national anthem of Poland, was one of such songs. Here, you can see a harmonization of its chorus written down by Fryderyk Chopin in 1835 as a gift to one of his Polish friends. 

Litwinka, or the Anthem of the Lithuanian Legonists, performed at the National Theater on May 29, 1831 Litwinka, or the Anthem of the Lithuanian Legonists, performed at the National Theater on May 29, 1831 (1831) by Karol KurpińskiThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy on the theme of Polish struggle for independence

Chopin based his Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49 on an allusion to another such melody that was well-known among the Poles. 

The song called 'Litwinka' was originally composed by Karol Kurpiński to inspire his compatriots to engage in Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831.

Litwinka, or the Anthem of the Lithuanian Legonists, performed at the National Theater on May 29, 1831The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The wind of change

The first words of the song described the wind of change that brings the hope of regaining independence: The air blew sweet across the Polish land.   

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Telling the story. Introduction

Fantasy in F minor begins with an introduction in which two different marching melodies, both alluding to Litwinka's opening melody, are presented one after the other. 

Litwinka, or the Anthem of the Lithuanian Legonists, performed at the National Theater on May 29, 1831, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
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Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
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The allusion is clearly visible in comparison of the two scores.

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
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The first introductory march forms a sorrowful downwards movement.

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
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The second introductory march climbs upwards upliftingly.

Litwinka, or the Anthem of the Lithuanian Legonists, performed at the National Theater on May 29, 1831, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
,
Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, From the collection of: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute
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Again, the alussion is clearly visible in the comparison of the two scores.

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, first and second theme
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Telling the story. Development

Later on, the main story begins leading the listeners through five various themes and numerous changes in harmony and intensity of musical expression.

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, third and fourth theme
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One can feel as if being in the middle of a struggle.

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, fifth theme
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Knowing the allusion that opened the work, we can interpret it as a Polish struggle for independence. 

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, epiphany
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Telling the story. Epiphany

Right in the middle of the stream of themes or musical events, the scene changes abruptly. Suddenly, we find ourselves listening to a quiet chorale. Is it a hymn? Or a prayer? Or a voice from another world?

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, ending
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Telling the story. Consequences

Everything that already happened matters for what will happen next. After the moment of epiphany, the sequence of five themes is repeated, but this time their harmonic and expressive trajectory is different. They aim at a bright, victorious ending in A flat major.

Meaningful change

The change of harmonies is especially meaningful since most of the music composed at that time tended to begin and end in the same key. The Fantasy began in a mournful F minor, but the following musical events brought it to A flat major – the mourning was transformed into joy. 

A nuanced narration

The story that can be heard in Chopin’s narrative works is much more nuanced then the outline of the Fantasy presented before. Even if there are no recognizable allusions, we can infallibly recognize the tone of voice of a storyteller in much of Chopin’s music. 

Open meaning

Those stories, however, remain open for numerous readings and interpretations. They mean different things to different people, inspiring listeners with different backgrounds and experiences to make them part of their lives.

Listen with imagination

Unleash your imagination and follow the story of Chopin’s Ballade in F minor in an outstanding performance of Kate Liu. What can this music mean for you?

Credits: Story

Paweł Siechowicz (Chopin Institute)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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