Ballades (Chopin)

Chopin, 1835

Frédéric Chopin's four ballades are one-movement pieces for solo piano, composed between 1831 and 1842. They are some of the most challenging pieces in the standard piano repertoire.[1][2]

The term ballade was used by Chopin in the sense of a balletic interlude or dance-piece, equivalent to the old Italian ballata, but the term may also have connotations of the medieval heroic ballad, a narrative minstrel-song, often of a fantastical character. There are dramatic and dance-like elements in Chopin's use of the genre, and he may be said to be a pioneer of the ballade as an abstract musical form. The four ballades are said to have been inspired by poet Adam Mickiewicz.[1][3] The exact inspiration for each individual ballade, however, is unclear and disputed.

The ballades are considered an innovation of Chopin's and cannot be placed into another form (e.g. sonata). Though they do not conform exactly to sonata form, the "ballade form" created by Chopin for his four ballades is a distinct variant of sonata form with specific discrepancies, such as the mirror reprise (presenting the two expositional themes in reverse order during the recapitulation). The ballades have directly influenced composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms who, after Chopin, wrote ballades of their own.[2]

Besides sharing the title, the four ballades are entities distinct from each other. According to composer and music critic Louis Ehlert, "Each [ballade] differs entirely from the others, and they have but one thing in common – their romantic working out and the nobility of their motifs."[2] Modern theorists have shown, however, that the ballades do have much in common, such as the "ballade meter" (6/4 or 6/8) and certain formal practices like the mirror reprise and delaying the structural dominant.

The four ballades are among the most enduring of Chopin's compositions and are frequently heard in concerts.[4] They have been recorded many times.

Ballade No. 1

"Ballade No. 1" redirects here. For the solo piano piece by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, see Ballade No. 1 (Liszt).
Main theme of Ballade No. 1

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, dates to sketches Chopin made in 1831 during his eight-month stay in Vienna.[5] It was completed in 1835 after his move to Paris, where he dedicated it to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France.[6] In 1836 Robert Schumann commented that, "I received a new Ballade from Chopin. It seems to be a work closest to his genius (although not the most ingenious) and I told him that I like it best of all his compositions. After quite a lengthy silence he replied with emphasis, 'I am happy to hear this since I too like it most and hold it dearest.'"[7]

The piece begins with a brief introduction which, contrary to popular belief, is not unrelated to the rest of the piece. Written in first inversion of the A-flat major chord, it is a Neapolitan chord that implies a majestic aura, ending in a dissonant, questioning left hand chord D, G, and E-flat that is not resolved until later on in the piece. Though Chopin's original manuscript clearly marks an E-flat as the top note, the chord has caused some degree of controversy, and thus, some versions of the work – such as the Klindworth edition – include D, G, D as an ossia.[2] The main section of the Ballade is built from two main themes. The brief introduction fades into the first theme, introduced at measure 8. After some elaboration, the second theme is introduced softly at measure 68. This theme is also elaborated on. Both themes then return in different keys, and the first theme finally returns again in the same key, albeit with an altered left hand accompaniment. A thundering chord introduces the coda, marked Presto con fuoco, to which the initial Neapolitan harmony re-emerges in constant dynamic forward propulsion, which eventually ends the piece in a fiery double octave scale run down the keyboard. As a whole, the piece is structurally complex and not strictly confined to any particular form, but incorporates ideas from mainly the sonata and variation forms.

Ballade No. 1
Performed by Donald Betts. Courtesy of Musopen.

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A distinguishing feature of Ballade No. 1 is its time signature. While the other three are written in strict compound duple time with a 6/8 time signature, Ballade No. 1 bears deviations from this. The introduction is written in 4/4 time, and the more extensive Presto con fuoco coda is written in 2/2. The rest of the piece is written in 6/4, rather than the 6/8 which characterizes the others.[8]

Ballade No. 1 is one of the more popular Chopin pieces. It is prominently featured in the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist, where an approximately four-minute cut is played by Janusz Olejniczak. It is also played in the 1944 film Gaslight and heard in the 2006 satire Thank You for Smoking. It is the music for the "Black" pas de deux, the final, climactic pas de deux in John Neumeier's staging of the ballet The Lady of the Camellias, based upon the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The piece was the subject of the 2012 BBC documentary Chopin Saved My Life.[9] It is quoted in Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony No. 21 ("Kaddish").[10] It was featured in the final episode of anime Your Lie in April.[11] The piece was also included in Fallout 4's in-game classical radio station.

In 2010, the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, dedicated a year to learning Ballade No. 1 and produced a book about the experience, Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible.[12]

Ballade No. 2

Opening bars of Ballade No. 2
Ballade No. 2

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Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38, was composed from 1836 to 1839 in Nohant, France, and on the Spanish island of Majorca. Robert Schumann, who had dedicated his Kreisleriana, Op. 16, to Chopin, received the dedication of this Ballade in return. The piece has been criticized by prominent pianists and musicologists, including its dedicatee Schumann, as a less ingenious work than the first.[2] There is some degree of disagreement as to its inspiration, with the claim often made that it was inspired by Adam Mickiewicz's poem Świtezianka, the lake of Willis, but this claim is unsubstantiated, and the Ballade No. 3 is sometimes attributed to this poem as well.[1][2]

As with the Ballades No. 3 and No. 4, the Ballade No. 2 is written in compound duple (6/8) time. It opens quietly on the dominant of the F major key, with repeated Cs in both the left and right hands. This quickly progresses to a melody and development with the performance instruction sotto voce – literally "under the voice", or "quietly". This section fades out with several repeated As in the right hand. The next section of the ballade, in stark contrast to the first, opens with the performance instruction Presto con fuoco – literally "very fast with fire". It is in an unusual key for a secondary melody; instead of being in the parallel minor of F minor, it is instead in A minor. Chopin scholar and biographer Frederick Niecks writes of it, "The entrance of the presto ... seems out of keeping with what precedes; but what we hear after... justifies the presence of the presto."[13] The piece shortly returns to its original tempo and style, and the first melody is further elaborated. Here, Chopin incorporates variations on the melody not present in the initial expository stage of the piece. This development progresses until the Presto con fuoco theme is naturally reintroduced and recapitulated. This time, it is elaborated on as well, and ends abruptly, until the theme is echoed once more and the piece fades out. The original F major theme is echoed, but now in A minor, the key of the Presto; it is thus that the piece ends, without returning to its tonic key.[4]

Ballade No. 3

Opening bars of Ballade No. 3

Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, dating from 1841, is dedicated to Pauline de Noailles.[1] The inspiration for this Ballade is usually claimed to be Adam Mickiewicz's poem Undine,[2] also known as Świtezianka.[1] There are structural similarities with the "Raindrop Prelude" which was inspired by the weather in Majorca during Chopin's disastrous vacation with George Sand. These include a repetitive A-flat which modulates into a G-sharp during the C-sharp minor section.

Ballade No. 3
performed by Martha Goldstein on an 1851 Erard piano

Ballade No. 3
Performed by Donald Betts. Courtesy of Musopen.

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The form of this Ballade is an arch: ABCBA coda. The first A theme is in two parts; the first part is song-like and the second is dance-like. Out of the four ballades, the third Ballade has the tightest structure. This Ballade also uses development procedures that are successful at heightening the tension.[14]

The Ballade opens with a lengthy introduction marked dolce (sweet). The introduction is thematically unrelated to a majority of the piece but is repeated at the close and climax of the work. Following the introduction, Chopin introduces new theme in a section with the performance direction mezza voce; this theme consists of repeated Cs in two broken octaves in the right hand. This theme reoccurs three different times in the ballade, twice on C and once on A-flat. The "mezza voce" section soon develops into a furious F minor chordal section and once again returns to A-flat. The 'mezza voce' section is repeated, following by a new theme consisting of right hand sixteenth-note leggiero runs. The following return of the broken octave theme is transposed from C to A-flat (the repeated Cs now being A-flats). The key signature then shifts to C-sharp minor. The original "B" theme is then developed, this time using rapid, chromatic left-hand runs in the left hand under large chords in the right. This theme builds to a climax through rapid repetition of broken G-sharp octaves (referencing the "mezza voce" theme) with fragments of the "B" theme in the left hand. A retransition occurs as the dynamic builds from piano to forte. The figuration in the left hand is chromatic and consists of spans frequently larger than an octave. The key signature then shifts back to A-flat major. In the final section of the arch, the "A" theme from the introduction is repeated again in octaves. The ballade ends with a reprise of the A-flat leggiero runs and a second right hand arpeggio. Four chords provide closure to the piece.

Ballade No. 4

Opening bars of Ballade No. 4

Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, was composed in 1842 in Paris and Nohant and revised in 1843. The work was dedicated to Baroness Rothschild, wife of Nathaniel de Rothschild,[2] who had invited Chopin to play in her Parisian residence, where she introduced him to the aristocracy and nobility. According to Robert Schumann, this Ballade was inspired by Adam Mickiewicz's poem The Three Budrys, which tells of three brothers sent away by their father to seek treasures, and the story of their return with three Polish brides.[15]

A phrase in the dominant key (marked piano) opens the seven introductory measures and leads into the first subject of sonata-form exposition, a melody with Slavonic coloration. The first theme undergoes four cumulative transformations with decorations, counter-melodies, counterpoint, and a nocturne-like fioritura.[16] The development of the second theme and its intertwining with the first heightens the complexity of the musical structure and builds tension. Through the intertwining and thus the simultaneous development of the two themes, Chopin effectively combines the use of both the sonata form and the variation form.[8] The body of the piece concludes with a series of accented fortissimo chords, followed by a momentary calm of five pianissimo chords. This then suddenly leads into an extremely fast, turbulent coda, written in exuberant counterpoint. Structurally Ballade No. 4 is decidedly intricate.[1][2]

Ballade No. 4
Performed by Donald Betts. Courtesy of Musopen.

Ballade No. 4
Performed by Randolph Hokanson

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A distinguishing feature of the fourth Ballade is its contrapuntal nature. Counterpoint is found only sporadically in Ballades Nos. 1 and 2. The fourth Ballade is musically more subtle than the other three, as most of its portions remain melancholic and profound. Although there are some substantial outbursts in the central sections of the music, the coda reveals its greatest momentum.

Coda from Ballade No. 4

Of the four Ballades, it is considered by many pianists to be the most difficult, both technically and musically.[1][2]

According to John Ogdon, "[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."[17]

It has been used in television and cinema including The Bourne Supremacy and The West Wing.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Chopin: Complete Music Analysis – Ballades
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Huneker, James (1921). Chopin: the Man and his Music. p. 414. ISBN 1-60303-588-5. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
  3. Zakrzewska, Dorota (1999). "Adam Mickiewicz's "Ballady" and Chopin's Ballades". Polish Music Journal. 2 (1–2). ISSN 1521-6039. Retrieved 2010-01-07.
  4. 1 2 Nicholas, Jeremy (2007). Chopin: His Life and Music. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks MediaFusion. p. 268. ISBN 1-4022-0757-3.
  5. Smaliek, William; Trochimczyk, Maja (2015). Fréderic Chopin: A Research and Information Guide (2nd ed.). New York and London: Routledge. pp. xxviii. ISBN 978-0-415-99884-0.
  6. Orga, Ateş (1978). Chopin. p. 64. ISBN 9780846704164.
  7. Anh L. Tran. "Chopin: Work List – Illustrations, Quotes, Dedications". Retrieved 2010-01-07.
  8. 1 2 How to Play Chopin: Chopin's Ballades, Prof. Regina Smendzianka
  9. Chopin Saved My Life at the Internet Movie Database
  10. Cookson, Michael. "Review: Recording of the Month". MusicWeb International. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
  11. "Your Lie in April" Spring Breeze (TV Episode 2015), retrieved 2016-09-03
  12. Winter, Robert (24 April 2014). "He Dove In and Did It". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
  13. Niecks, Frederick (1888). Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician. Novello.
  14. Steward Gordon. A History of Keyboard Literature. (California: Schirmer, 1996), 291–292.
  15. Foreword, The Ballads of Chopin, Salabert Editions. An English version of the poem can be found here [dead link ]
  16. Chopin: Profile of his Music: Extended Forms: Ballades, Scherzos and Fantasies
  17. "Chopin Music: Ballades". 2009-06-13. Archived from the original on 27 January 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-06.

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