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*:
- Introduction in parallel octaves (b.1-7)
- Initial statement of famous Theme I in G minor (b.8-44)
- Transition and modulation (b.45-66)
- Initial statement of lyrical Theme II in Eb major (b.67-93)
- Restatement of Theme I in A minor (b. 94-105)
- Grandiose restatement Theme II in A major (b.106-125)
- Transition and modulation (b.126-137)
- Waltz-like Theme III in Eb major (b.138-165)
- Restatement of Theme II in Eb major (b.166-193)
- Restatement of Theme I in G minor (b.194-207)
- 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.
After 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?