The Spirit of the Polonaise

by Margaret Anderton

What is a Polonaise? It is a stately and elegant National Dance of Poland, full of a nation’s color, pulsing with the full time of Polish life in its day of glory, pomp, splendor and chivalry. Characterized by an energetic rhythm, always of a martial nature, full of subtle changes, now grave, now haughty, now reckless; again breathing a womanly tenderness, an elusive grace, or a firm resolve, a calm gravity, a chivalrous devotion. You can almost hear the firm tread of the men, see their haughty, resolute carriage, ready to face danger and treachery and injustice. You can see those beautiful women, proud, trusting, with their luminous eyes, their diamonds and sapphires, and hear the jingle of spurs, the rustling of the silken garments, for this was the dance of the aristocratic beauties and the nobles and military men, with their proud bearing and magnificent accoutrements, at the time when Poland was in the height of her glory – though the shadow of the terrible crushing downfall was already looming – and intrigues and plottings had become rife. This stately and elegant dance might almost be named a march; in fact they are really “Marches in Triple Rhythm” (and in this paradox – this anomalous pulsing – may we not find the very core and pith of the fascinating elusive playing of Paderewski)? Those swaying musical breath flutterings of Chopin’s immortal piano compositions – the Chopin of the Etudes, the Preludes, the Sonati, the Polonaise Fantasie – the translation of the untranslatable “Rubato” (for explaining the rubato is exactly like impaling a butterfly upon a sharp pin, and expecting it to live and fly.)

The Origin of the Polonaise

Historically the polonaise dates its origin to that year when the Polish throne becoming vacant through the extinction of the royal dynasty; a struggle for the throne took place between scions of the royal houses of Austria, France and Russia. this was in 1573, and resulted in the election of Prince Henry of Anjou (later King Henry III of France), who ascended the throne amid the most gorgeous ceremonials in the vast hall of the royal castle of Cracow. Amid much pomp the great nobles and high dignitaries of Poland marched in stately procession toward this Frenchman, whom they were accepting as their Monarch, and were presented to him by the master of ceremonies. It was the pride of Poland and the flower of France joining hands. Music written expressly for this grand march was played by the royal band, and from this beginning has been gradually developed peculiar National Dance – from which we know as a Polonaise. I have not, as yet, been able to find any trace of this embryonic Polonaise, and, in fact, research goes to prove that the primitive music of this “march dance” or “dance march” possesses little artistic value, though some of the old melodies – as the “Kosciusko” – (for they were frequently named after some hero) revivify memories of that epoch, and possess more musical merit.

Around the end of the 18th century, Weber, that fiery and dramatic composer, precursor of Wagner, revived the Polonaise, and made of it an instrumental work of brilliance and vigor – bringing out by the power of his genius all the poetry of the dance. Weber may be considered the founder of that transition of dance music from its original “time marking” for the dance, to its further and present use as a musical expression of deep feeling, carried like a delicate bit of wondrous carving on a plain block of wood – the rhythmic outlines of the dance alone preserved. but for poetry and vivid tone pictures, apart from the increasing variety and richness of the exquisite harmonies, he has been surpassed by the great Polish musician, Chopin – Fryderyk Szopen, as the Poles write the name of Poland’s great composer. Chopin, following the path already blazed by Weber, elevated the dance to a distinct and individual art, and his Polonaises – great splashes of national color – with their sweeping roll and marked rhythms, their wanton mirthfulness, their subtle sadnesses, their fiery majesty, the ring of steel, the shimmer of sound, possess a peculiar charm all their own, not only to the Polish heart, but to the entire music world.

In and through them all lurks that strong and insinuating perfume which Liszt has expressed by the indescribable term “Zal”. Verily are they what Robert Schumann has so poetically called them, “Cannons buried in flowers”.

One can close one’s eyes and dream on as this divine music rings in the ears, if we well give ourselves up to these dreams, which, as Byron has said:

“In their development have breath, and tears and tortures,
And a touch of joy.”

Still patriotism is a deeply rooted seed in all noble hearts, and the struggles and crushing sorrows and despair of that noble and unhappy country of his birth, appealed to Chopin’s sympathetic sensitive make up, and in his morbid moments would appeal to him as synonymous with his own struggles, the great strong soul fighting with the weak bodily ill health and shattered nerves. We find in all these polonaises an intense fire of patriotic passion, which he has expressed in his own God given music language, voicing the gamut of suffering of the whole Polish race.

Chopin’s patriotism could never be the kind to make him do practical things, such as fighting, conveying arms or taking part in political intrigues fro the freedom of his country. He was a dreamer and a thinker, and he had but one way to express himself. The torture of the man nature writhing under the stiletto thrust of the woman who scorned him; the poignancy of all sorrow; the stirring of the innermost soul fibres; the martial glow and chivalrous patriotic fires; the essence, the very pith of things – he must need express in music. And here he is preeminent. He has the skill to stir others by the inner consuming fire of his genius – that something which will make the actual pulse accelerate its action by the mere power of a thought – a sound – so that the hearing of his music will goad and spur the more practical workers of the world to their deeds of heroism. Chopin’s martial polonaises are internal soul states rather than external heroisms or heroics.

How The Polonaise was Danced

A brief description of the dance as it was originally performed may be interesting, though writers who have seen it danced in comparatively recent times state that is had changed so as to lose some of its original character and raciness. It was essentially a grand parade of beauty and grace especially designed to display the handsome and richly dressed cavaliers. The host would approach the lady, whose high rank and great beauty he desired to honor, and lead the dance, the other cavaliers following. The movements were varied according to the ingenuity of the noble host, and in many instances were not restricted to the salon, but they would be conducted through handsome galleries, illuminated gardens with fountains bubbling and playing, through distant shrubberies where only a murmur of the music could reach their ears.

After the host had inaugurated the fete, as it were, any one of his guests had the right to claim his place with the lady, and clapping his hands a moment would check the movement of the dance, as he paid his homage to the lady and begged her gracious acceptation of the change of partner. Appeal of this nature were then made by all the cavaliers, and again the dexterous manoeuvring would continue.

The new leader would now display his skill in inventing intricate and complicated figures, but so leading that no graceless or confusing jostling should result. The rhythm is very marked, the movements undulating, and with these graceful men and women who trod the measures as to the manner born, it was the poetry of motion. as the succeeding couples merely had to follow the leader, there were many opportunities, as you may well imagine, for the cavalier to whisper sweet flatteries, to urge some petition, some impassioned pleadings, perhaps in politically troublous times a note, a word, might be passed.

The great Polish composer was inspired to write a number of these wondrous tone pictures of the national dance of his beloved country. Perhaps one of the best loved is the might A flat Polonaise – sometimes called the “heroic”, which contains the thunderous hoof beats of the cavalry charge expressed in the music by a great octave climax. An anecdote is rife to the effect that on one occasion as the composer, in a highly nervous state from a recent illness, was playing over this partly completed work, his imagination at fever glow, became so excited by the music that he had an hallucination. He thought he saw the walls of his apartment open, and out of the darkness of the night a band of the knights – the flower of Polish chivalry – mounted on horseback came riding towards him. Horses and ghostly riders, arrayed in all their antique war accoutrements, arising from their century old graves, rode in through those yawning walls, and closed upon him. With a suffocated cry he sprang from the piano, and fled from the room, and it was some days before he could be induced to enter it again, or to resume work on the Polonaise. A vague pianissimo running passage is interpolated into the work at this point, which some interpret as the indecision, trepidation and reluctant fascination with which he again takes up work on his self created monster, before with a sudden bold attack, resuming the cavalry horse movement with which he carries on the work, sweeping it to a magnificent finale.

There is, however, another meaning for this passage, but this is one each individual must seek as they study, or listen to this vibrant and thrilling Opus 53 Polonaise of the great Chopin.