The Story of the Polonaise

Music of Yesterday

by Edward Baxter Perry

[Editors note: Mr. Perry herewith gives the second of his interesting and valuable series of talks upon the great dance forms. His "Story of the Valse" appeared in The Etude for last April, and in a forthcoming issue our readers will have the pleasure of perusing his "The Story of the March". Mr. Perry gives more than a description of the dance; he gives the spirit and historical conditions which led to its creation, and follows this with a description of some of the great compositions in this form. The Polonaise (Italian, "Polocca") is a dance in three quarter note time, and the tempo, which is similar to that of the march, may be between andante and allegro. The main characteristics of the rhythm are in eighth note falling upon the first beat of the measure and followed by either two sixteenths are a triplet and three sixteenths on the second half of the first beat. The remainder of the measure is made up of either two quarter notes, four eighths or eight sixteenths. this form is slightly varied by different composers. The last measure of each movement of the polonaise usually consists of four sixteenths coming on the first beat of the measure, followed by a quarter note falling on the second beat, then by an eighth note on the third beat. This characteristic of ending with a short note on the third beat is very marked.]

This distinctively Polish musical form which has been so closely identified with Poland’s history through all her manifold vicissitudes, during more than three centuries, originated in 1573 in Cracow, then the Polish capital, on the occasion of the coronation of the young French prince, Henri d’Anjou, as king of Poland.

The great nobles, always, unfortunately, at feud among themselves, which was ultimately the cause of Poland’s downfall, were wholly unable to agree upon one of their own number to fill the throne left vacant by the death of the last of the Jagiellos, and finally united in electing the young prince to the office, which was intended to be little more than that of a figurehead to the ship of state.

The coronation ceremony, which took place in October of that year, was one of the most magnificent affairs ever witnessed, for Poland was then at the height of her power, wealth and splendor, and barbarically oriental in her love of lavish display and extravagant personal adornment.

It was no uncommon thing for a knight to wear the entire value of his estates and possessions in jewels at a court function.

One of the important features of this grand festival was a presentation ceremony to introduce the members of the court and aristocracy to the new king – a reception of regal proportions.

All the great lords and ladies of the realm, arrayed in their most sumptuous apparel, with all the available jewels in evidence, assembled in one of the lower halls in the royal castle, formed in a glittering procession, marched stately pomp up the grand staircase, through various halts, galleries and ante chambers, finally up the length of the vast magnificent throne hall to the dais, where the king awaited them, there to be presented to his majesty by the grand master of ceremonies. This march was accompanied by suitable music written for the occasion by a local composer; music intended not only to mark the rhythm of the march, but to add to the pomp and pride and beauty of the occasion, and to embody the peculiar racial characteristics and national traits of the Poles, thus in a way supplementing the introductory feature.

It was a musical presentation of the Polish people to their new monarch. Then and there was born the polonaise, which, from that germ, crude and primitive though it may have been, has gradually developed into a definite, complete and quite elaborate musical form, recognized and used the world over, the common property of all composers.

But the true, polonaise, no matter when, where are by whom it may be written, manifests distinct traces of its original heredity, natal environment and early associations; always “harks back”, so to speak, to those olden days of Polish pomp and splendor; is always Slavonic in its general tone and aristocratic in its manner and mood.

Its distinguishing rhythm is a measure of six eighths, though sometimes written in three four time, of which the second eighth is divided into two sixteenths. It is always a promenade march, not a dance. In later times it was used as the opening number at state balls at court and at the palaces of the nobles not only in Poland, but, to some extent, in other lands, but has always retained its original characteristics even to the present day, though it is now used rather as a musical art form than as a familiar feature of the modern ball. Precisely as in the case of the waltz, however, as time went on the music of the polonaise was broadened and elaborated so as to include in its scope the expression not only of the original mood and scene, but additional ideas, feelings and fancies, even incidents connected with or arising out of it.

For example, one may recall the days of Poland’s glory with very widely different emotions; with pride and exultation over her past; with heart breaking sorrow at her present degradation; with tearful sympathy for her wrongs and sufferings; with bitter indignation against her oppressors. Any of these moods, as well as many others, may be legitimately expressed in the polonaise.

Chopin, in whose hands the polonaise reached its highest development and perfection, has given us a great variety of moods and suggestions, all based on the original polonaise idea and embodied in that form. They are all ideal polonaises, but no two of them are alike in emotional content.

The Military Polonaise, Op. 40, No. 1

In his military polonaise, Opus 40, No. 1, which is perhaps the best known, he tells us of the martial spirit and prowess, the courage and chivalry of the Polish knights in their magnificent, gem studded armor sweeping the field of battle on their matchless steeds, with the clash of steel, the blast of trumpets, bearing the Polish standard to victory.

Polonaise in C Minor, Op. 40, No. 2

The polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2, is a broad noble, but profoundly gloomy work of the darkly majestic type.

The theme, in octaves, voices the stern, well nigh despairing indignation of a strong, dauntless race crushed to earth by the overwhelming weight of numbers, but sullenly biding its time, and gathering the remnant of its strength for one last desperate struggle, heroic, though hopeless, to avenge its many bitter wrongs; with pride and courage still unbroken, but with a full realization of its impotence.

It is the same spirit that led the Polish students in the streets of Warsaw to throw themselves unarmed upon the Russian bayonets by the hundreds, preferring a futile death to a life of shame among a vanquished people.

The lighter, more capricious trio, with its occasional brief touches of plaintive tenderness suggest a fleeting thought, half pathetic, half satirical, of the day that “might have been”.

Polonaise in C Sharp Minor

No polonaise is a greater favorite, especially among those who incline towards the lyric style in music, than that in C sharp minor, on account of its great variety and markedly poetic mood. It opens with a bold, heroic introduction, expressing the martial, defiant spirit of the Polish cavaliers, then changes abruptly to a tender lyric strain suggesting the grace and charm and delicate beauty of the “eternal feminine”, never and nowhere more potent than in the chivalric days of Poland’s power and splendor.

Then follows a brief but strong and masterly climax of a somberly dramatic mood, beginning with a whispered hint of gloom and mystery and impending danger, then rising suddenly through a series of sequences to a crash of minor and diminished harmonics, thrillingly significant of the sudden shock of conflict. then a radical transition to an exquisitely sweet and tender strain, breathing of love and romance, like a sudden gleam of sunlight through the storm clouds.

The trio is an intensely impassioned duet between the knight and his lady, full of Slavonic fervor, yet vibrant with an almost desperate sorrow, the reflex of the omnipresent dangers and strife through which the path of true love must lead, too often, to bitter partings and into the shadow of sudden death.

The composition is less of a polonaise in the strict sense than a picture of Polish life which the polonaise calls before the mind.

Polonaise, Op. 26, No. 2

A notable original and weirdly fascinating work by Chopin in polonaise form is the one in E flat minor. It opens with a curious fantastic movement, darkly tragic in mood; indeed, voicing a shuddering despair too black and terrible to be attractive to the majority of young players, which is probably the reason why the work, though extremely interesting and of only moderate difficulty, is very little used.

One of Chopin’s compatriots states that this first strain is intended to imitate the doleful clank of the chains upon the vanquished Polish patriots in their long march to Siberia.

It is followed by a long reiterated and insistent movement in choral form and unequivocally religious vein, a suggestion of the pathetic attempt of heart crushed by defeat, smarting with injustice and humiliation, tortured by keenest personal grief, striving to find comfort and consolation in the promises of faith.

Andante Spianato and Polonaise, Op. 22

One of the very best and also one of the most difficult and brilliant of the Chopin polonaises is the one in E flat usually designated by the above title.

The andante spianato is simply a quiet introduction prefixed to the polonaise proper, spianato being an Italian word not often used in musical terminology, which means tranquil, and qualifies andante. It has no reference to spinning, as has been inferred by some on account of the name and the character of the accompaniment.

This movement is a tender lyric in Chopin’s sweetest, most exquisite vein, ornamented by a series of delicate embellishments.

It appears to be a sort of waking dream indulged in by the young composer at the moment of the creation of this great polonaise when his thought and fancy were engrossed with the life history and characteristics of his beloved country. A dream of those happier days long past, touched by a transient gleam of hope that they might return. The whole work belongs to his early, more optimistic period before he was twenty, before his long exile had begun, before Constantia had broken his heart and shattered his ideas, before his home had been sacked and burned by the Russians, the period of youth and hope and aspiration when life still glowed with the rosy tints of dawn. Then a sudden blast of trumpets and crash of cymbals recall us to the gorgeous court pageant of 1573 heretofore described, announcing that royalty has taken its seat in the great hall, the ceremony has begun and the splendid procession may start on its imposing march. Then comes the polonaise, brilliant, stirring, triumphant, replete with a wealth of constantly varying melody rich in harmonic coloring, well nigh over laden with embellishment, like the costumes of the lords and ladies who defile in a glittering line before the eyes of our fancy; superb knights in jewel studded armor, beautiful ladies in silk and velvet of every hue flashing with gems.

From moment to moment the music changes in character to suggest the shifting kaleidoscopic impressions produced by this moving pageant, now bold and proud and martial, now tender and graceful, again playful, coquettish or impassioned while the procession winds on op the grand staircase and across the magnificent throne hall.

Now and then a sharp dissonant clash of steel on steel indicates the salute of the knights to their new monarch with the war like din of sword on shield.

Polonaise in E Major by Franz Liszt

Among the well nigh innumerable polonaises of every degree of merit and difficulty, written by different composers of various lands and periods, this in E major, but Liszt, is probably the best, aside from those by Chopin, and it is certainly the most widely known. It is a standard concert number the world over. A work of the first magnitude in breadth, musical significance and technical difficulty, and it is the only one within the writer’s acquaintance in which identically the same theme is made to serve both as first subject and as trio melody. This is a unique conceit, and carried out with Liszt’s own clever ingenuity.

The idea is to suggest the distinctive traits and characteristic attributes of the Polish race manifested under the modifying influence and conditions of sex. In other words, the racial temperament in its masculine and feminine embodiment. The characteristic theme symbolizes the national spirit, remaining essentially and fundamentally the same in both cases, while the widely varying treatment and setting clearly differentiate between the sexes in which it finds embodiment.

In the first subject this theme appears in bold, forceful chords, instinct with a resolute, martial spirit, with the pride, heroic courage and fierce joy in conflict, typical of the dashing steel clad cavalier.

In the trio it re-appears note for note, but in a higher register, treated in light, delicate, playful mood, with a highly elaborate and ornate setting, sparkling with dainty embellishments to represent the feminine incarnation of Polish racial type, the charming, capriciously brilliant, witchingly winsome Polish lady.

Even the musically untrained ear may easily learn to follow this dominant theme through all its modifications and transmigrations, and enjoy its varied poetic suggestions, as well as its tonal fascination; while to the student of the art it is a most interesting example of musical symbolism.

The second subject, in heavy, rugged chords and octaves, is Lisztish, so to speak, rather than Polish – the Hungarian point of view – vigorous, but a little pompous and supercilious.

It may be supposed to represent the rough, wild, primitive conditions of those early days on the eastern frontier of civilization when the strong arm was the only law and logic, and the good sword the only arbitration.

Polonaise by E. A. MacDowell

There has been one, and only one, polonaise written on this side of the Atlantic which fully deserves to rank with the masterpieces in this form by the Old World composers, namely, that by MacDowell.

Though not of extreme difficulty, in fact within the possible playing repertoire of most fairly advanced amateurs, it is a broad, effective concert number worthy of a place on any artists program, and far less used than it should be.

Its opening theme is markedly original, yet thoroughly characteristic of the polonaise, conceived in its gloomily retrospective mood. Its sombre majesty and forceful intensity bring irresistibly to the mind the dark, tragic history, the desperate heroism, the gallant but futile struggle, and the ultimate hapless doom of a proud and noble race.

It is a stern, indignant protest against tyranny, injustice and cruelty as strongly and feelingly expressed as if MacDowell had himself been a native son of Poland, with an undertone of fatalism eminently in keeping with the Slavonic temperament. In fact is always recalls to me those wonderful lines of Swinburne:

“More dark than a dead world’s tomb,
More deep than the great sea’s womb,
Fate.”

The trio, as is customary in the polonaise, introduces a suggestion of a lighter, more playful vein. It is bright, vivacious, almost humorous, indicating a brief abandonment to an almost reckless gayety on the very verge of the disaster which is recognized as inevitable, yet is ignored, even scouted for the moment with that incredible courage and half frivolous, half cynical humor, characteristic alike of the French and Polish nobility even on the way to the guillotine, or that far more terrible living death, Siberian exile.

This trio closely imitates, in mood and style, the music of the Hungarian Gypsies; indeed, one might easily fancy it to be of Hungarian origin.

This peculiar touch is a rather unusual and daring innovation in the polonaise, but is entirely legitimate and appropriate, as will be understood when it is remembered that those musical nomads from across the Hungarian border were often engaged at the castles of the Polish grandees to furnish the music for their balls and festivals, and were, of course, often called upon, as we may assume to be the case in this instance, to accompany the brilliant, stately march of the polonaise. The long, wild, sweeping cadenza, which leads back to the first theme, is unmistakably symbolic of the rush and roar of the bitter winter wind from the northern steppes, raging about the castle walls, moaning dismally among the towers and battlements – the ominous voice of Nature allegorically significant, perhaps, of the rushing wings of death and destruction so imminently impending.