Valentina Lisitsa plays Chopin Balade No. 1

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 (Valentina Lisitsa)

Ukrainian-American classical pianist Valentina Lisitsa plays Frédéric Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. It is the first of Chopin’s four ballades for solo piano, composed between 1831 and 1842.

Chopin’s Four Ballaes are in one-mobement pieces and they are considered some of the most challenging pieces in the classical piano repertoire.

Frédéric Chopin in 1849
One of the two known photographs of Frédéric Chopin, taken by the 19th-century French photographer Louis-Auguste Bisson (1814–1876) in 1849, just a few weeks before the composer’s death, when he was terminally ill.

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, composed in 1831 during the composer’s early years in Vienna, was a reflection of his loneliness in the city far away from his home in Poland, where the November Uprising, a war against the Russian Empire’s oppression of his people, was happening. Once finished, it wasn’t published until his move to Paris, where he dedicated it to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France. 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.'”

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. 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.

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.

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 (born 2 October 1952 in Wrocław, the Polish classical pianist and actor). 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. It is quoted in Mieczysław Weinberg’s (8 December 1919 – 26 February 1996, the Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin) Symphony No. 21 (“Kaddish”). It was also featured in the final episode of anime Shigatsu Wa Kimi No Uso and was played (interpretation by Tomoki Sakata) as farewell for one of the main characters. The piece was also included in Fallout 4’s (an action role-playing video game) in-game classical radio station.

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