guest editorial by Maciej Gołąb; translated by Maja Trochimczyk

1. Introduction

Transformations of Chopin’s style have not always been accepted as a legitimate research problem because of the nature of Chopin’s musical language. The evolution of this language was not marked by spectacular turning points, resulting from shifts of his whole musical system. Changes in Chopin’s style did not happen in a series of “breakthroughs,” but as a gradual, organic process of maturation: first, through the assimilation and expansion of a range of artistic means provided by the musical tradition, then through the creation of new expressive values on the basis of these inherited means. Therefore, one may speak of “quantitative crises” instead of qualitative breaks. The changes of Chopin’s style displayed a continuity that was as organic and solid as that found in the evolution of individual styles of other major artists of European romanticism. Certain genres in Chopin’s music may be associated with the emergence of particular innovations in harmony, tonality, syntax, style, and form. These innovations do not necessarily entail changes of a lasting character; they are configured in a stable arrangement with other elements co-present in a given genre, and do not always bring in a permanent transformation of the genre’s paradigm. In the final analysis, the evolution of genres in Chopin’s oeuvre is only a certain tendency that may reveal itself to a weaker or stronger extent in individual works.

The research into the transformations of Chopin’s style is made complicated by more factors than the absence of characteristic, qualitative changes in his musical language. The barrier which makes it difficult to unearth the sources of these changes also arises from the chronological variability of the genres that Chopin cultivated. Both Józef Chomiński (b1960) [1] and Teresa Dalila Turło (1960) [2] stated that certain genres provided particular “centers of gravity” for individual phases in the development of Chopin’s music. The research of these scholars indirectly points to the absence of a unified foundation for the analyses and interpretations of different genres. Considering such nuanced progress of Chopin’s creative evolution, the examination of his whole oeuvre could leave some doubts whether the observed changes are, indeed, the effect of the evolution of the expressive means, or whether they result from introducing an entirely new genre.

While the issues examined by the group of scholars who worked under my direction had not been given a satisfactory answer in the previous Chopin literature, our focus on “transformation” was not directly connected to a need to introduce yet another periodization of Chopin’s music. Such a schema would be equally unsupportable by internal musical criteria, as a great number of periodizations put forward in various monographic studies. Instead, we focused on the search for qualitative changes of these genres with which Chopin was engaged throughout his life. Which genres were those? The main group consisted exclusively of sonata forms, nocturnes, polonaises, and mazurkas. Andrzej Tuchowski later added another group, consisting of works that he defined as romantic genres of narrative-dramatic type (1996, p. 86-111). The “Tuchowski” group includes scherzos, ballades, the Fantasy in F minor op. 49, and the Barcarolle in F sharp major op. 60.

2. Changes in the Domains of Harmony and Tonality

The search for an individual, dynamic norm in the domain of harmony resulted in identifying chromatic texture as a subject of research that was arbitrarily isolated from its context (Gołąb 1991). [3] Until now, the topic of chromaticism has not been the focus of much attention in the research on Chopin’s harmony, despite having been considered to be a particularly important phenomenon of the 19th-century harmony. While scholars noticed the existence of chromatic textures in Chopin’s harmony, their awareness of such chromatic passages did not lead to the discovery of their status as a particular “generative unit” seen from the perspective of changes in individual style.[4]Chromatic textures, belonging to the most idiomatic traits of Chopin’s style, consist of a sound continuum governed by the principle of semitonal shifts within chordal components, embodied in various formal categories, from simple scalar passages in the melody, through precise mixtures and sequences, through the composed-out forms of the sequences that, at times, would create the sound flow of the whole form (e.g., the Prelude in A minor op. 28 no. 4).

Chromatic textures that form a continuous presence in Chopin’s works with opus numbers do not constitute an array of morphologically stable norms; rather, they are stylistic idioms remaining always the same in terms of their textures, but not always the same in terms of their tonality. In order to indicate that this form of chromaticism is fully controlled by the diatonic aggregate and does not undermine the tonal relations in a given composition I called this aggregate of harmonic-tonal features that characterizes the chromatic textures in Chopin’s early music “accidental chromaticism” [chromatyka akcydentalna]. Accidental chromaticism is characterized by – still distinctly evident – opposition of parallel melodic and harmonic textures. In both dimensions of this musical space, I understood the notion of accidental chromaticism as a category related to the historically grounded opposition of diatonicism versus chromaticism in the music of the 18th and the early 19th centuries.

Naturally, the chromatic scale provided the basis for Chopin’s first experiences with chromaticism in the melodic dimension. The first part of his Sonata in C minor op. 4 (1928) presents an example of an early understanding of chromaticism in the melody; chromaticism is seen there in the manner of an “interpolation.” Morphologically speaking, a similar type of chromaticism is particularly strong in the etudes, where Chopin applied three types of accidental chromaticism in the domains of melody and figuration (i.e., unison, thirds, sixths). This group of compositions consists of the Etudes in: A minor op. 10 no. 2; in B minor, op. 25 no. 10; in A minor op. 25 no. 11; in G-sharp minor, op. 25 no. 6; in A-flat major, op. 10 no. 10; and in D-flat major, op. 25 no. 8. The early chromatic textures in Chopin’s melodies do not bear any relevant impact on the relationships of tonal character. Therefore, in reference to these types of textures we can talk about stable tonality, where the existence of chromatics is connected solely to a tonal “coloring” which in turn is marked only by the existence of composed-out cadences that provide the basis for the chromaticization of melodies.

While in these melodic-tonal discourses chromaticism is subservient to diatonicism, in analogous harmonic discourses chromaticism is an extension of diatonicism. Harmonic discourses (instances) of accidental chromaticism manifest themselves through mixtures (replications of the same chord) and sequences (replications of a pattern of a harmonic relationship). The mixtures, which are characteristic of an earlier phase in Chopin’s output, assume the forms of chord sequences with added sixths, dominant sevenths, and diminished seventh chords; the chords shift up and down following the chromatic scale. In strict sequences there is a predominance of certain relationships in the material of the chromatic scale: the coupling of a dissonant tetrachord with the following triad, cadential formulas, and the chromatically integrated chains of seventh chords arranged on the framework of the cycle of fifths. These means result in a certain (characteristic for this discourse) suspension (expansion) of the tonal process associated with the accumulation of one type of harmonic means and the interruption of relationships of a functional nature. Examples of harmonic discourses of accidental chromaticism may be found in Chopin’s output from the second half of the 1820’s and the 1830’s (especially in the rondeaux, concerti, and variations), i.e., in types of his music linked to a conventional repertoire of pianistic-virtuosic figures of the stile brillante.

In my work on this subject I proposed that the aggregate of harmonic and tonal norms characterizing late chromatic textures in Chopin’s music be called essential chromaticism, [chromatyka esencjalna]. This new type of chromaticism, which does not have historical antecedents in music theory contemporaneous with Chopin, is a rare phenomenon in compositional techniques, occuring only in the music of some representatives of musical romanticism (Spohr, Schubert, and Liszt). The essential chromaticism is a type of integrated texture in which the qualitative opposition between the melodic and the harmonic dimensions no longer exists and where the melodic element becomes a constitutive aspect of the tonal logos. What is harmonic assumes its Gestalt as a result of the melodic tendency of the leading tone. In the case of the chromaticism of the “late” Chopin, one cannot speak of the “melodic,” on the one hand, and of the “tonal-harmonic” on the other (traditional discourses of chromaticism); instead the discussion should focus on the melodic determinants of harmonic-tonal structures. Moreover, from a purely harmonic point of view, the norms of essential chromaticism are not directly connected to the diatonic aggregate that controls them; instead, they exist in an emancipated, autonomous domain of musical phenomena. Examples of essential chromaticism are provided by Chopin’s compositions starting from the late 1830’s.

Among the musical-formal categories associated with essential chromaticism in Chopin’s music, and, particularly, in the melodic domain, one should distinguish between: (1) the existence of narrow-range categories of a motivic-thematic nature, (2) the phenomena of the mutual permeating of evolutionary and periodic structures of form, and (3) the tendency to blur the segmentation of phrasing. In the realm of harmony, the interpolatory character of tetrachords in the domain of “pillar-like” tertian harmony is blurred, and both dominants provide the basis of the dominant harmony that is constitutive for the tonal process – as “chromogenic” functions [funkcje chromogeniczne] (e.g., Prelude in E minor op. 28 no. 4). In this way, the major-minor system is extended and this extension is accompanied by a tendency toward a gradually more prominent sharpening of simultaneities (increase of dissonance through alterations and poly-alterations), which is perceivable especially in the “last” Mazurka in F minor (WN 65). All these processes, changing the harmony both in the morphological sense and in the sense of harmonic functions, have resulted in creating a new type of tonality in Chopin’s “late” music. I call this type a “labil tonality” [tonalność labilna] and describe it as being characterized by a tendency to remove constant and stable nodes of tone centralization (e.g., Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45).

3. Transformations in the Domain of Syntax and Musical Form

Pioneering studies of Chopin’s syntax that concern us here were authored by William Rothstein [5] who focused on the means of expansion of the phrase – that is, the procedure of extending the musical passage through interpolations, composecadencesencies, and other compositional means. While taking only the nocturnes and mazurkas into account, Rothstein studied the issue of the internal evolution of Chopin’s style between 1830 and 1846. He discovered the existence of the same stylistic features that were earlier pointed out by Higgins: “no composer so frequently slurred against the phrase structure of his music” as Chopin did. [6]. After a series of convincing analyses of both examined genres Rothstein discovered the existence of particular processes, ranging from the “tyranny of a four bar phrase” to the “endless melody.” As he writes, “during the decade of the 1840’s, both composers [i.e., Chopin and Wagner – M.G. note] were moving towards an increasingly seamless style of melodic writing, which in Wagner’s case has become famous under the name of ‘endless melody’.” Rothstein also noted Chopin’s constant “tendency to minimize the articulation of divisions between phrases and between sub-phrases” (1988, p. 128). Theoretical descriptions of the above-mentioned processes are accompanied by references to the Polonaise-Fantasia op. 61 and – to a lesser degree – to the Scherzo in E major op. 54. The key example is provided by a unique, 22-measure-long “poetic arch” in the Nocturne in G major op. 37 no. 1 (m. 3-25).

The second research project, the values of which should be emphasized particularly because of their pertinence to the issues discussed here, is the study of Elżbieta Witkowska-Zaremba about mazurkas presented in my selection from the 1993 volume. The author avoided the question of periodization, emphasizing the continuity of transformations of Chopin’s musical language instead of focusing on particular transformative moments. Nonetheless, Witkowska-Zaremba’s analyses do not leave any room for doubt about one characteristic of Chopin’s oeuvre: a particular dynamics of the analyzed genre from the point of view of syntax and form. A careful reading of Witkowska-Zaremba’s study allows us to make certain generalizations. Chopin’s mazurkas evolved from the additive form inherited from classical dance (Mazurkas op. 6, 7, and 24) to a form with open segments that was freed from the constraints of the dance tradition (op. 17 no. 4; op. 24 no. 4; op. 30 no. 4; op. 41 no. 4; op. 50 no. 3; and op. 56 no. 3). This change of syntactic-formal paradigms consisted of (a) a gradual removal of the relationship antecedent – consequent,” (b) the beaming “against” the (grammatical) phrase that acted in opposition to the cadential punctuation and that sometimes reorganized the form in Chopin’s Mazurkas op. 30, 33 and later opus numbers, (c) the delaying or stopping of the harmonic sequence (retardation), (d) the technique of breaking the phrase (Mazurka op. 30 no. 4) , and (e) the tendency to blur strophic distinctions through grouping strophes in larger segments masking the caesuras between the strophes (e.g., Mazurka op. 50 no. 3, m. 33-45). Witkowska-Zaremba also emphasized what Hugo Leichtentritt earlier called “the mark of symphonism” – a term which indicates the presence of “the drama of development” in the last phase of Chopin’s oeuvre.

4. The Question of Periodization of the Music

The nature of the transformational changes of Chopin’s style – in its character non-organic and visible only in general outlines, abounding both in “regressive” moments, and in the phenomena of “early anticipation” – is still convoluted and involved. After many more or less successful attempts at periodizations of his output, this complexity still does not turn one away from undertaking yet another attempt at evaluating Chopin’s compositional process. It seems that when drawing from the epistemological principles of the emergent theory of musical style we arrive at an interpretation of Chopin’s music that strongly differs from the one held earlier (especially in respect to the issue of the evolution of Chopin’s style). We should not overestimate the meaning of the fact that in discussions of new patterns of periodization diachronic cuts sometimes reflect the scholars’ different decisions about their exact temporal location; obviously, these cuts refer to different research material. For instance, the periodization of the polonaises introduced by Baranowski [7] is different from the one that Helman proposed for the sonatas in the study published here (Helman 1993, p. 66), and different from the chronology of the evolution of the polonaises and mazurkas proposed by Rothstein (1988, p. 128). These apparent controversies probably influenced Witkowska-Zaremba’s decision to entirely avoid introducing any periodizations of her own (p. 131). While doing so she quoted the opinion of Kallberg, according to which many traits of Chopin’s mature style appear in his earliest pieces and are perfected through the following years (Kallberg 1985) [8].

5. Selection of Articles for the Polish Music Journal

Of the essays presented in the Polish edition of Przemiany stylu Chopina[9] in 1993, I selected four articles.[10] The first of these, authored by Teresa Dalila Turło and entitled “On the Chronology of Chopin’s Sonata Forms, Nocturnes, Polonaises, and Mazurkas,” discusses the dating of those Chopin’s genres which are the subject of critical assessment in the entire volume. The study by Zofia Helman (“Norms and Individuation in Chopin’s Sonatas”) is an erudite comparative study, based on theoretical and practical contexts of the sonata form in the first half of the 19th century, which reveals the internal organization of Chopin’s sonata-allegro forms and the musical language used in the sonatas (both changing in time). From this point of view Helman juxtaposes in a polar opposition the early group of sonatas and the last three sonata cycles, written from the late 1830’s. Elżbieta Witkowska-Zaremba (“Versification, Syntax and Form in Chopin’s Mazurkas”) presents an original method of analysis that is derived from the theory of grammar and rhethoric. Karol Berger considered as “particularly interesting” her notions of “phrase” as a musical equivalent of a poetic verse and of “stanza” as a specific phrase grouping, that is, an equivalent of a poetic stanza (Berger, p. 288). In Chopin’s Mazurkas, Witkowska-Zaremba emphasizes both the dynamics of development and the continuity of changes of the genre. The concluding paper selected for publication in the Journal is a hermeneutical essay by Maria Piotrowska, Late Chopin: Notes about the Final Works. In this essay, Piotrowska interprets a group of compositions from Chopin’s last period (Barcarolle op. 60, Sonata op. 65, song Melodia, “Z gór, gdzie dźwigali”) by seeking recourse to the category of understanding (Verstehen) which is central for the domain of hermeneutics. Piotrowska includes references to contemporaneous sources from the realms of literature, philosophy and music criticism of that period. In the original volume Transformations of Chopin’s Style , the study by Andrzej Tuchowski [11] (“Structural Integration, Texture and Form in Chopin’s Nocturnes”) was also of great significance. In this essay, Tuchowski – on the basis of Schenkerian tradition – developed his own approach to the analysis of structural integration. In this method he focused on forms of pitch movement which were common in Chopin’s whole oeuvre. Tuchowski later developed this method in the book of 1996 where he pointed out the existence of a “qualitative turning point” which occurred in the process of transformation of genres in the 1830s and 1840s; this turning point entailed significant changes pertaining to tonal, syntactic, and formal factors. Since Andrzej Tuchowski’s more recent study of one Nocturne presents this methodology in detail, the earlier paper, despite its many merits, has been omitted from the present volume.


[1]. Józef Chomiński, “Z zagadnień ewolucji stylu Chopina” Muzyka 5 no. 3 (1960). [Back]

[2]. Teresa Dalila Turło, “Ewolucja techniki figuracyjnej u Chopina” [From the issues of the evolution of Chopin’s style] in F.F. Chopin, Zofia Lissa, ed (Warsaw: Chopin Society, 1960). [Back]

[3]. Maciej Gołąb, Chromatyka i tonalność w muzyce Chopina (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1991); German translation as Chopins Harmonik. Chromatik in ihrer Beziehung zur Tonalitat (Koln: Belaverlag, 1995). [Back]

[4]. See Ludwik Bronarski, Harmonika Chopina [Chopin’s Harmony] (Warsaw, 1935, p. 260-272). [Back]

[5]. William Rothstein, “Phrase Rhythm in Chopin’s Nocturnes and Mazurkas,” in Chopin Studies, ed. Jim Samson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). [Back]

[6]. Rothstein, ibidem, 1988, p. 124. [Back]

[7]. Tomasz Baranowski, “Przemiany muzycznych kategorii formalnych w fortepianowych polonezach Chopina” [Transformation of musical-formal categories in Chopin’s piano polonaises], in Przemiany stylu Chopina, p. 91- 107; periodization is discussed on p. 106. [Back]

[8]. Jeffrey Kallberg, “Chopin’s Last Style,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38 (1985). [Back]

[9]. Andrzej Tuchowski, Integracja strukturalna w świetle przemian stylu Chopina (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1996). [Back]

[10]. The contents of the volume: Part I. “Issues in Source-Studies and Methodology.” Maciej Gołąb, “Metodologiczne aspekty badań nad przemianami stylu Chopina” (11-22); Teresa Dalila Turło, “Z badań nad chronologią form sonatowych, nokturnów, polonezów i mazurków. Studium dokumentacyjno-źródłowe” (23-42). Part II. “Transformations of Musical-Formal Categories in Chopin’s Sonatas, Nocturnes, Polonaises and Mazurkas.” Zofia Helman, “Norma i indyviduacja w sonatach Chopina” (43-68); Andrzej Tuchowski, “Integracja strukturalna a faktura i forma w nokturnach Chopina” (69-90); Tomasz Baranowski, “Przemiany muzycznych kategorii formalnych w fortepianowych polonezach Chopina” (91-109); Elżbieta Witkowska-Zaremba, “Wersyfikacja, skladnia i forma w mazurkach Chopina” (109-136). Part III. “From Studies of Aesthetic Categories in the Style of Chopin.” Danuta Jasińska, “Problem stylu brillant w twórczości Chopina” (137-156); Maria Piotrowska, “‘Późny Chopin. Uwagi o dziełach ostatnich” (157-178). [Back]

[11]. I originally intended to include Andrzej Tuchowski’s study, but Dr. Trochimczyk asked me not to, since another article about Chopin’s nocturnes by the same author has already been published in the Polish Music Journal. [Back]