Chopin’s 19th-century biographer James Huneker writes, “No compositions are so Chopin-ish as the Mazurkas. Ironical, sad, sweet, joyous, morbid, sour, sane and dreamy, they illustrate what was said of their composer – ‘His heart is sad, his mind is gay.’ ”
No Chopin compositions capture his longing for his homeland quite like his mazurkas either. He wrote his Op. 17 set of mazurkas shortly after arriving in Paris..and expecting to return eventually to his native Poland once the political unrest died down. That he never did is but one of the many tragedies of Chopin’s life. But Chopin kept his undying affection for his homeland alive through his nearly 60 Mazurkas.
True, they contain authentic aspects of the rustic Polish dance, but Chopin’s mazurkas are more than gussied-up versions of folk music. They’re more like character pieces, using inspired melodies and intricate harmonies to express wistful memories and a homesickness seemingly without remedy.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the four mazurkas of Op. 17. Each seems to express something profound and elusive. Biographer Huneker hears in them “the collective sorrow and tribal wrath of a downtrodden nation.” Closer to our own time, the online All Music Guide labels the first in the set – in B-flat major - the “extrovert” of the set: “….ebullient and aristocratic in its vigor and joy. It certainly conjures images of the dancers in the more fashionable ballrooms in the composer's homeland or even a courtly scene of grand festivity. ” But this is Chopin – even the festive scenes have an ever-present sadness underneath.
And what follows – the Op. 17 No. 2, in E minor – is the introvert: “autumnal shadows and doubt on the rather bleak musical landscape.” Only in Chopin’s homesick world is it an invitation to the dance. - Frank Dominguez & Benjamin K. Roe