Chopin's Mazurkas - Part 1

This article is part 3 of 46 in the 2022 music project series.
This article is part 1 of 7 in the Reviewing Chopin's mazurkas series.
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This is my third installment in the 2022 music project series (part 2). Chopin is my favorite composer, except for the stuff he wrote that I don't like. However, I have at one time another either played or listened to everything he's done. Or so I thought.

I recently realized that I had not listened to all of his mazurkas. The reason for this is that I don't really like them. They're supposed to be traditional dances or something, but they're not very dance-like. The melody is generally either boringly simple or way too complex. And my god the repetition!

Anyway, I figured I could blow through 51 of his mazurkas and then I can say that I've listened to them. Apparently there are more, published after his death, or whatever, but those ones aren't in my book of Chopin's Mazurkas, so I'm going to ignore them.


The Mazurkas

My plan is to listen to them, while following along in the score. Perhaps I'll write some thoughts, but mostly I thought it might be neat to rank them in a purely objective manner, i.e. how much I like them. Or maybe not. I haven't really decided, yet.

Quatre Mazurkas

For Contessa Pauline Plater. I'm sure she was thrilled.

Op. 6, No. 1 in F♯ minor

This one isn't bad. Short and sweet, although, like all the mazurkas, annoyingly repetitive. Interesting that the main theme starts on the V and resolves to the i in the second measure.

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C♯7 resolves to F♯m

Op. 6, No. 2 in C♯ minor

I like this one. The intro is unusual. It uses a pedal G♯ in both hands while the right top three fingers handle the melody.

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G♯ pedals in both left and right hands

Like the previous piece, this one also starts on the V and then resolves to the i. Maybe that's just how mazurkas work. I've got 49 more to go to see if that theory holds.

Most of this one kind of just sounds like a typical waltz, which probably is why I like it.

Op. 6, No. 3 in E major

This one is even shorter and sweeter. The beginning reminds of something, perhaps some Liszt piece1 with the strangely accented fifths.

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Strangely accented fifths in Chopin's third mazurka
chopin-mazurkas-03-fifths-liszt.png (image/png, 727x151, 6,217 bytes)
Liszt's Rondo Fantastique "El Contrabandista" also has some accented fifths

These ascending broken chords I found to be reminiscent of Chopin's E major scherzo, albeit significantly less intimidating.

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Ascending broken chords in the mazurka
chopin-mazurkas-03-scherzo.png (image/png, 607x134, 6,224 bytes)
Chopin's Scherzo No. 4 also has some ascending broken chords

And if anyone else has smallish and/or mildly inflexible fingers, you may also notice the same inverted 7th chords from Beethoven's Rage Over a Lost Penny.

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Chopin used the same left-hand 7th chord inversion transposed from G → E

Op. 6, No. 4 in E♭ minor

This is incredibly short, for which I am thankful. Very frantic, with lots of notes that sound like wrong notes, weird accents and just generally muddled melodies. This is what I think of when I think of mazurkas.

This one did not start on the V so the dream from the previous mazurka is dead.

One interesting musical thing is that the main melody starts with an E♭m chord and then immediately goes to an E♭7. It's hard to tell the actual chord progression, but it might be more of a G°7 which leads to Fm F°7 (forgot about the C♭s) which leads to B♭7 which brings us back to E♭m, which would make more sense than a Picardy 3rd in the 2nd beat of the main theme.

Actually that doesn't really make more sense (if it were Fm it might), so I don't really understand the theory here. Maybe it's just some classic Romantic chromaticism.

Or whatever.

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Intro to mazurka no. 4

Cinq Mazurkas

For Johns de la Nouvelle-Orléans

Op. 7, No. 1 in B♭ major

Just looking at the score I can see we're back to the V - I progression to start out. The dream is alive?

This one is nice and whimsical, with a very waltz-like feel to it. Once again the C section revisited one of the neat things I mentioned from No. 2, with the pedal tones, this time in G♭, which eventually resolves to F and then back to the main theme in B♭. I don't know if that's a common theme in these mazurkas, but it's nice to hear something different between all the repeats.

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G♭5 pedal tones in mazurka no. 5

Op. 7, No. 2 in A minor

I'm starting to think mazurkas don't really start out on the tonic. This one starts out on the iv. No dreamy V - I but still pretty spicy.

First thing I noticed while listening it that there appears to be an omission from my score. Measure 8 in the performance (and other scores) has an E major chord while mine has E minor. Probably a printing error, to be honest. This might warrant some more investigation...

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G♮ in my score (Schirmer)
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G♮ in the 41 Mazurkas score on IMSLP
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G♯ in the Mazurkas, Op. 7 score on IMSLP

A fairly cursory glance through IMSLP eems like it's actually kind of evenly split between G♮ and G♯. Performances seem to be split as well:

From what I can tell, it seems like more modern interpretations/editions use G♯ while older ones use G♮. I feel like some music major could write a thesis on this, but this is as far as I'm willing to go.


This one is much more somber and melancholy than the previous mazurkas. A nice departure from what I would probably characterize as "frantic" compositions; this one is more like a sad ballad.

The B section ends on a picardy third, which I found quite pleasing. The 1st ending is A minor and the 2nd ending is A major, which leads to a key change. You love to see it. I guess all mazurkas aren't just cacophonies of appoggiaturas after all.

This has a classic DC al fine marking, in which I noticed that after the key change to A major, when it goes back to the beginning we are back in D minor. So with end of the final section ending in A major V, it then nicely transitions to D minor (i). Maybe Chopin knows what he's doing after all.

chopin-mazurkas-06-dc-al-fine.png (image/png, 784x168, 9,420 bytes)
Ending in A major leads to the D minor chord back at the beginning of the piece

This one is probably my favorite so far.

Op. 7, No. 3 in F minor

This seems to be the most dance-like of all the ones I've listened to. I mean, it would probably be hard to tango to it, but I could imagine some 19th century gypsies dancing to it. Or maybe that's because I just read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I've got dancing gypsies on the mind. Anyway.

The end of the first section ended in Cm and then immediately hits you with an E♮ which leads back to Fm. It was kind of jarring, but I like some unusual chromatics in my romantic music, so I'm into it.

chopin-mazurkas-07-e-nat.png (image/png, 768x133, 13,985 bytes)
Cm → C7 → Fm

I also like the use of the ornaments in this piece as opposed to the previous pieces where they felt too distracting. The occasional mordent in this piece adds some flavor without annoying you.

Op. 7, No. 4 in A♭ major

This one starts off quick kinda sounding like bluegrass.

The middle section switches to D♭ with a kind of lyrical phrase, followed by the same phrase repeated (of course) but staccato. This might be the first occurrence of stacatto in the first eight mazurkas, and it was a welcome relief.

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Legato phrasing followed by staccato

Then it inexplicably modulates to A major, before going back to the main theme in A♭. Somebody with more theory knowledge will have to explain that one.

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Sudden modulation to A major leading back to the main theme in A♭

Op. 7, No. 5 in C major

Well that was some weird shit.

This kind of sounds like a too-happy Irish reel but he died before he could write the rest of it. The ending was terrible but the rest was okay.

Ranking

As promised, my completely objective and even-handed ranking of the first 9 mazurkas, in order of "how much I liked them."

Rank Name Key
1Op. 7, No. 2Am
2Op. 7, No. 3Fm
3Op. 6, No. 2C♯m
4Op. 6, No. 3E
5Op. 7, No. 4A♭
6Op. 7, No. 1B♭
7Op. 6, No. 1F♯m
8Op. 6, No. 4E♭m
9Op. 7, No. 5C

Downloads


  1. The piece I was thinking of is Liszt's Rondo Fantastique "El Contrabandista", which, while being pretty great, is also an excellent name for a piece of piano music.
  2. Listen to Kissin's performance on YouTube
  3. Listen to Rubinstein's performance on YouTube
  4. Listen to Ashkenazy's performance on YouTube
  5. Listen to Sun's performance on YouTube
  6. Listen to Książek's performance on YouTube