Analysis of Chopin’s Ballade in G minor

This year, I’ve finally decided to learn Chopin’s mighty first ballade in G minor. I played his (slightly easier) third ballade in A-flat major a few years ago, and have wanted to take on this iconic beast for quite some time, though have been advised against learning such a well known piece for examinations. But now my LTCL diploma is safely out of the way, and the FTCL feels a long, long way away (if ever…), the time has finally come to tackle the first ballade. Entirely co-incidentally, Alan Rusbridger – editor of the Guardian and amateur pianist – recently published a book about learning the same piece, which of course I devoured with great gusto!

So, aside from the enormous technical challenges of the ballade (of which there are a great many!), what are the memorising issues?

Previously associated only with poetry and song, the term ballade was first applied to instrumental music by Chopin when he composed his four ballades for piano (Op. 23, 38, 47 and 52). Each ballade is a large-scale Romantic piano piece consisting of just a single movement, with a dramatic narrative and overwhelmingly lyrical melodies. The enormous creative leap taken by Chopin was to combine classical forms with contemporary popular pianism to create an extended form comprising virtuosic bravura, improvisatory flourishes and soaring melodies based on formal sonata-based tonal structures.

When memorising a long piece like this one (~10mins), a good understanding of the structure is essential for forming a mental map of the piece – so you don’t get lost! Analytically, it’s useful to break the piece into a number of distinct sections. The overall structure follows a thematic arc: initial statement of themes, followed by extensive transition and development, then a final reprise and resolution. It can be further divided as follows*:

  1. Introduction in parallel octaves (b.1-7)
  2. Initial statement of famous Theme I in G minor (b.8-44)
  3. Transition and modulation (b.45-66)
  4. Initial statement of lyrical Theme II in Eb major (b.67-93)
  5. Restatement of Theme I in A minor (b. 94-105)
  6. Grandiose restatement Theme II in A major (b.106-125)
  7. Transition and modulation (b.126-137)
  8. Waltz-like Theme III in Eb major (b.138-165)
  9. Restatement of Theme II in Eb major (b.166-193)
  10. Restatement of Theme I in G minor (b.194-207)
  11. Coda including acrobatic Theme IV in G minor (b.208-264)

Although the Coda is by far the most finger-breakingly difficult section of the piece, I’ve actually found it the easiest to memorise (other than the introduction, which is very short and has very few notes). Perhaps this is because the notes fit nicely into fairly standard arpeggiated patterns, or perhaps it’s because I necessarily have to practise it very slowly! For me, undoubtedly the hardest section to memorise has been the waltz-like Theme III and the preceding  transition – the peak of the thematic arch, which provides a little light relief from the heart-wrenching drama of the rest of the piece. I think the problem lies in the highly chromatic nature of the notes, with long fiddly patterns that lack a clear theme or tonal home.

Chopin Ballade Theme IIAfter breaking the piece into sections, the harmonic changes in each individual section can then be analysed in more detail, and the melodic phrases built on top. For example, here’s how I think through the first statement of the beautiful melancholic Theme II, bar-by-bar (from b.68, which is in the local tonic of Eb major; music from Petrucci Music Library):

  • dominant 7th (Bb7) leading into the
  • tonic (Eb), followed by the
  • supertonic 7th (F7) which then acts as a secondary-dominant to move into the
  • dominant (Bb) and very temporary secondary-tonic resting place**. Then
  • back via the supertonic 7th (Fm7) to the dominant 7th (Bb7), which establishes a sort of circle of fifths pattern for the next few bars:
  • primary tonic 7th (Eb7), subdominant 7th (Ab7),
  • diminished leading note 7th (Dm-dim-7th), mediant 7th (G7),
  • submediant (Cm), supertonic 7th (F7), then finally back to the
  • dominant 7th (Bb7) where the melodic and harmonic pattern starts to repeat.

Etc etc. (I could go one, but for the sake of your sanity, I won’t…!) The first half of Theme II comprises four bars with a single harmonic centre, followed by four bars with two chords per bar, which gives the theme a sense of movement. In addition to the lyrical soprano in the right hand, which I play almost entirely using auditory memory, the left hand also as a strong melodic shape. My auditory memory is less good for bass parts, so I try to find patterns of relationships between notes and bars to latch onto: for example, in the second group of four bars, the fourth note in every bar in the left hand is always the same as the first note in the following bar.

That all seems like an enormous amount of detail to remember! But I find knowing the harmonic structure – what each chord is doing in relation to its neighbours – is extremely useful for memorising and for shaping the theme. Moreover, very similar patterns are used in later restatements of this theme, so once memorised, this sequence of chords provides the basis for learning three sections of the piece. So what seems at first to be just a bunch of notes soon becomes a sequence of chords, which will eventually be memorised as a single phrase of music, which is then used three times throughout the piece. At least, that’s the theory! 

Anyway, that’s the heavy analysis over for now. The interpretation of this piece is another entirely separate subject, which perhaps I’ll come back to another time. At this point – just 1 month into the learning process – I’m still working on, well, basically every aspect of the piece! But the dramatic narrative is so epic that one cannot help but be swept up in the turmoil while playing. It tells a story in music. I don’t yet have a clear idea what that story is, but since its starring role in Roman Polanski’s widely acclaimed movie “The Pianist“, the first ballade is now indelibly linked with the desperate plight of  Warsaw Jews during the Second World War. I suspect memorising the ever-changing emotional landscape of this musical journey is going to be a challenging but necessary part of mastering the piece.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, I think you deserve a listen… here’s Krystian Zimerman playing Chopin’s first Ballade:

*A much more detailed analysis can be found here.

** In Rusbridger’s book, the fabulous Murray Perahia states that the first restatement of Theme II is in E major, not A major like everyone else thinks. How intriguing! I’ve been pondering this, and the fact that the theme seems to temporarily rest half way through the first phrase (on the same chord as the start of the phase, but without the 7th) does have the effect of making the tonal centre feel quite uncertain. So I can certainly see his point. But for consistency between the three presentations of Theme II, I think it makes more sense to think of it in A major. Otherwise the other presentations might be in Bb. Which they clearly aren’t… What do other people think?

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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5 Responses to Analysis of Chopin’s Ballade in G minor

  1. Dan Ashcroft says:

    Great article, how are you managing a few months down the line? I’m a fairly amateur musician, (did my grade 8 in 2008, though I’d put it off for a while. Not yet done diplomas or anything). But after playing some of the more difficult Chopin preludes and hearing Kissin’s recording of this piece I thought ‘go on then’. I started around March and have been on and off with it since then (had a dissertation to do so it was welcome relief to practise!).

    I’ve managed to get about three quarters through now. I’ve ‘just’ finished memorising the waltz section at full speed, though it still needs a bit more fine tuning. I find that my process is less analytical than yours (but then my music theory has never been my strongest point, same with maths), I tend to just play the same section again and again hundreds of times, slow it down, vary my playing style slightly (stacatto, then legato without pedal, even altering the rhythm occasionally). Gradually and gradually it begins to stick though it’s a nightmare to practise this way when people are around! I find that naturally I am quite skilled at bringing out the melody and the ‘feel’ of the piece, once I have learned the notes anyway.

    My main problem is that when I am practising the more tricky sections, my forearms start to burn and seize up, to the point that I’m unable to play for a while! Interestingly, once I’ve learned these parts, I don’t tend to have this problem no matter how much I play, so I think it has something to do with tensing up when in ‘learning mode’ as opposed to playing in a relaxed manner. Do you know if there are any tricks to preventing this? Maybe I just need to practise a bit slower…

  2. Gregg Michalak says:

    Hi all! I’ve been playing and performing the G minor Ballade since my college years at Ithaca College and have always enjoyed this work. There are indeed some hefty technical demands and everyone will find slightly different ones. while we may all agree that the coda is extremely difficult, I also have found the right hand ascending pattern leading into the “waltz” section to be very pesky to play even. There are not many (if any) alternate fingerings and I have always found this passage to be somewhat “bumpy” technically-if that makes any sense. I see many pianists just sail through it and can’t quite figure it out. Other passages-like the octaves in the middle section I tend to sail threw. then there are those runs at the end. Wow, who hasn’t screwed those up? Esp the one in tenths! I would like to hear anyones ideas about practicing them so they are rock solid and dependable all the way up! Lol

  3. harry taylor says:

    hi Caroline,
    Enjoyed your Blog on Chopin Ballade in G minor.
    I started studying the harmony of the ballade 1 a couple of months ago. It has been fascinating & challenging. As time passes, I see more deeply into the detail. Chopin must have had enormous ability, but I do wonder why he made it so difficult.
    A problem that has so far perplexed me, has been the RH ascending pattern before the waltz section (as mentioned above by Gregg). The LH is a B flat 7 chord, although the RH seems not to be related (kind of diminished). A 16 note sequence is repeated exactly, but I just cannot understand this, & that makes it very difficult to play. Does anyone understand it? or has the pianist just got to learn a bunch of notes blindly?
    Gregg, regards the final Gm scale in 10ths, try playing the scale in blocks of 1 octave at a time, pausing between each, (you may already know this).
    regards, harry.

  4. base12apps says:

    Thanks for posting this, it was very helpful to my playing. I’m 15 and I’ve been learning this piece for a couple months now, and I’ve had some of the same problems as what people above have been saying. Namely, the arm getting tight around the coda and the ascending scale before the scherzando. I’m still working out the coda- my teacher has told me something about rotating the arm and contracting the hand between jumps, I’m not really sure. But I have figured out that the ascending scale with the B flat seventh chords in the left hand is basically made up of an embellished chromatic scale. That made it a lot easier to memorize.

    As far as interpretation goes, I found a story to go with the Ballade that really connects with me. I don’t know how authentic it is, since I was reading Macbeth when I came up with it, but here goes. The story starts with an old man announcing that he is going to tell a story. He flashes back to a time in his youth when he was wandering without a purpose in life. Then we get to the second theme, in which he falls in love with a simply wonderful woman (like in the movie Up). He then marries this woman, and they reach the apex of their happiness together. They have a long and happy marriage, until the woman dies in his arms. That’s where the story the man is telling ends, and now the old man has nothing to live for, and basically he reaches the gates of Death in the coda. What do you think?

    It’s very nice to be able to discuss this piece, though, I don’t have any friends who’ve played a Ballade.

  5. harry taylor says:

    Great to hear your ideas b12. It sounds as though you are progressing well.
    I’ve been too busy to look at it lately, but will get back to it soon. It is always facinating
    to me, though very serious. Thanks, harry.

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