Friday, January 11, 2008

A melody with any other name would sound so sweet

Contrary to conventional wisdom, first impressions can be so misleading. Take Bach’s Polonaise from the Sixth French Suite in E Major. At first read through, following my instincts, I played the left hand legato and sweetly voiced the right hand melody above it. Ah, a lovely lullaby, a delightful little piece, but alas, I was wrong. When I played the Polonaise for Bruce Potterton in New York this December with what I thought was beautiful, lyrical feeling, he was not impressed. He did not like my interpretation…although he did say that he had heard many pianist play the Polonaise in a likewise manner. I wasn’t really mollified. I knew that the polonaise was a Polish folk dance, but not much more than that. Potterton said that for him the piece should be more march like or even militaristic. That interpretation sounded correct, but very difficult for me to get my head around. So I went to Google for some research…


A stately, marchlike Polish dance, primarily a promenade by couples.
Music for or based on the traditional rhythm of this dance, having triple meter.

From: Oxford University Press

A stately Polish processional dance or an instrumental piece. The dance, accompanied by singing, has long been used at weddings and public ceremonies. The melodies are in triple metre and have a simple structure, consisting of short phrases usually without upbeat. As a court dance, accompanied by instruments rather than by singing, it became the most highbred expression of the Polish national spirit and the most representative of Polish dances throughout Europe.

The 18th century saw the stylization of the polonaise. Those of Bach (French Suite no.1, Orchestral Suite no.2) show the characteristic features of triple metre, phrases without upbeat and a closing rhythm which throws the accent on to the second beat. German composers propagated the dance as a musical form and many polonaises were written by Telemann, J. G. Goldberg, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber and others. Chopin's famous examples established ex.1as the typical polonaise rhythm. Among other notable piano polonaises are those of Schumann and Liszt, and the form was used by several Russian composers, including Musorgsky (Boris Godunov), Tchaikovsky (Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin) and Glinka.

From: Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Dignified ceremonial dance in 3/4 time, frequently employing dotted rhythms, that often opened court balls in the 17th – 19th century. It likely began as a warrior's triumphal dance and had been adopted by the Polish court as a formal march as early as 1573. The dancers promenaded with gliding steps accented by bending the knee slightly on every third step. It often appeared in ballets, and it was used as a musical form by composers such as George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, and especially Frédéric Chopin, whose piano polonaises were martial and heroic.

OK, so some scholarship supports Mr. Potterton’s interpretation. So far, none supports mine!

From Columbia Encyclopedia

polonaise (pŏl'ənāz', ō'–) , Polish national dance, in moderate 3–4 time and of slow, stately movements. It evolved from peasant and court processions and ceremonies of the late 16th cent. and was later used by J. S. and W. F. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. Chopin, exiled from Poland, expressed his patriotic fervor in 13 polonaises.

Typical rhythm of a Polonaise: Eighth note with two sixteenth notes followed by four eighth notes

Now this is interesting. Bach’s rhythm for the E Major Polonaise is: two sixteenths followed by an eighth note then two quarter notes. Why so different from the typical rhythm? Does that support my theory of a lyrical, dreamy piece? Also interesting…

The polonaise (Polish: polonez, chodzony; Italian: polacca) is a rather slow dance of Polish origin, in 3/4 time.

Hmmm, could I play the work my way? Stay tuned!

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