Chopin’s Masterly Valse in A-Flat, Op. 42 (1934): A Detailed Lesson Analysis by the Eminent Virtuoso

by Moritz Rosenthal

translated by Florence Leonard [1]


The works of Chopin show the hand of an incomparable master, and genius. not one of them sounds laborious; not one is burdened with mere formulae. And yet he who enraptured with his improvisations a Thalberg, a Liszt, a Berlioz, a Meyerbeer labored unremittingly over some of his creations. His Valse in A-flat, Op. 42,[2] proves this fact almost more than any other of his compositions, as the writer will attempt to show.

The effects on us of the masterpieces of our musical literature are various. Oft-times a theme seizes our fancy and the work takes hold of us; then follow doubts and our interest wavers. But the case is quite different when we come to know a composition which once seemed strange, even unintelligible, to us. At first we turn away from it. By chance we hear it a second and a third time, either in the concert hall or among friends. Now this or that passage begins to interest us, and our original coldness toward the piece is changed into enthusiasm. We think we know nothing more beautiful. We fall in love with the composition. This is what happens to many musicians in regard to numerous works of Robert Schumann, his Kreisleriana, Op. 16, his Fantasie, Op. 17, his Humoreske, Op. 20. It occurs often with the later works of Beethoven, his last sonatas, and his last quartets, also with many works of Bach and other composers.


Where Familiarity Breeds Enchantment

There is a third case: We hear or play a piece which interests us immediately, dazzles, enchants us. We study it, test it carefully while we study, place every measure under the magnifying glass as a conscientious jeweler does diamonds and pearls. And behold! We suffer no disillusion. We continually discover new charms. Even more, our changing mood and humour enable us to see the work in ever-changing lights and colors, as if a beautiful landscape took on new beauties under changing lights. This happens to us often with Beethoven and likewise with Chopin. With regard to the A-flat Valse, Op. 42, it is more than probable that Chopin carried this piece in his mind long before it took on its final form. Glancing over the waltzes which he composed previous to this one finds two others in the same key, both composed much earlier and both containing passages which are recognizable although altered, in opus 42.

One of these waltzes is numbered Op. 69, No. 1, and would therefore appear to have been composed long after Op. 42. But it is known that this waltz was composed when Chopin was about twenty years old, at the time when he was in love with Mlle. Maria, daughter of Count Wodziński, and that it was dedicated to her. One may even suppose that in this waltz Chopin wished to create a spiritual portrait of his Beloved. The friends of his youth have related that he willingly drew such tone portraits from the keys, when he was asked to do so. In him every impression turned to music. Indeed he said to his friend of later years, the great painter, Delacroix, of Paris, that he heard no glass tinkle, no insect hum, that a melody did nto occur to him! (With our modern composers this does not seem to e the case.) It was Delacroix who painted a magnificent portrait of Chopin, making him a very god among artists and men.

Chopin’s portrait of his betrothed (whose parents had given their consent to a marriage only on condition that Chopin’s health should improve) seems not to have satisfied the young Master, for he buried it in his desk drawer. It was given out after his death, together with other posthumous works, by his pupil, Fontana, and published by Schlesinger, in Berlin. The passage which seems to have hovered in Chopin’s mind as a parallel to the secondary theme of Op. 42 (measures 57 to 70) is the following:

Example 1.

If the moods of the two waltzes are compared, the early waltz will be found to be sad, melancholy, while the later one, Op. 42, written in Paris in his more mature years, is brimming over with the joy of living (Phrasing and interpretation will be considered later.)

Still more striking is the similarity between a famous passage of Op. 42 and one in the Valse Brillante Op. 34, No. 1. This is proof that Chopin bore with him for a long time the idea of this passage, until in Op. 42 he found its true shape, richer in harmony, more elegant in pianistic form. Compare Op. 34, No. 1, and Op. 42, measures 41 to 56, and it is easy to see how far the second conception rises above the first.

Example 2a.
Example 2b.

There follow the analysis of Op. 42 and the explanation of some of the musical subtleties which it contains. The waltz opens with a trill of eight measures which conjures up at once the expectation of a virtuoso piece. But in fact this trill with the two notes which form its closing turn (Nachschlag) is the beginning of the lower voice, interesting in its harmonies, which accompanies the chief theme and itself begins with the rhythmic augmentation of the after beat. See measures 1 to 8.

Example 3.

This device in itself is ingenious, but how amazing it is to observe that the melody of the chief theme is not written in half notes and quarter notes, as had always been the custom. But for the first time in the literature of music this theme is conceived in two notes of equal value for each measure, two dotted quarters (three-eighths in value). See measures 9 and 10.

The three quarter notes of the bass combine with these two melody notes thus: the second quarter of teh bass sounds before the second note of the right hand’s melody; the third quarter of teh bass sounds after it, measure after measure. This gives rise to a curious illusion. We seem to see how several couples are dancing past each other, in waltz tempo. Thus Chopin has already indicated the poetic program which may have hovered in his imagination—the idea of a Parisian Ball, with its elegance, its coquetry, its brilliancy, its allurement. But, before dwelling on this program, the writer wishes to point out the musical phrasing of the principal theme (melody). See measures 1-40.In this musical ball-fête we do not seem to be breathing our ordinary tedious mixture of oxygen and nitrogen with traces of argon and helium, but pure oxygen. Gaily the couples circle in and out. But in measure 40 a short trill on A-flat leads to that famous passage of sixteen measures, which occurs not fewer than six times in this piece (with some alteration in the fifth and sixth appearances) and which , therefore, must have seemed to Chopin very important. Here, in this elegant, polished second theme one can imagine a single aristocratic pair who seem to be not at all concerned with the passionate moods of the other dancers. Indeed, a musician who has “ears in the back of his head” may in measures 46-48 hear a faint rustle of silk skirts.The interesting structure of this Waltz “in rondo form,” as it may well be called, because of the recurrence of this passage after each subsidiary theme, can be made clear. Contrast the separate episodes, sparkling with life, with the calm poetry of teh sixteen measure passage, set forth with elegant certainly, to which also belongs an exquisite pianissimo (with II Pedal, una corda) from the 25th to the 40th measure.After the first entrance of this passage, there follows a secondary theme which is almost always interpreted wrongly, that is, in the sense of the German waltz, with the accent on the first quarter note. But here Chopin was apparently possessed by his Polish temperament and introduced an episode which should rather be played in mazurka style. The writer now always takes (at all events, in the repetition) the first eight measures of the mazurka-rhythm with the accent on the third quarter note. (usual interpretation, measures 58 to 72). The writer’s interpretation is as follows:

Example 4.

Every sensitive musician will agree with me in designating the customary rendering, with the accent on the first quarter note, as uninteresting, even monotonous. Next the lovers glide by; then comes the passage episode. Then come sixteen measures which contain less of a musical value (89 to 104). It is a rare occurrence with Chopin and is explained by the fact that he clearly wished to portray, here, the ball orchestra, which takes no interest in the more intimate events of the ball. Moreover, these sixteen measures afford a brilliant contrast to the passage episode which recurs again. Now, after the third repetition of teh dance-poem measures, enters an episode which is full of Chopin’s persuasiveness and enchantment, presenting, apparently, a declaration of love. However, it does not reach the irresistible climax of other cantilenas in waltzes of the great poet, such as that splendid one in B-flat in the C-sharp minor waltz, or teh beginning (principal theme) of teh posthumous A-flat, marked by Fontana Op. 69 No. 1, or the glorious cantilenas from the A minor waltz. This one from Op. 42 shows a strong Parisian element, less of the Polish, but it is full of elegance and ingenuity (measures 121 to 164).

The cantilena leads into a passage episode, which for the fourth (and last) time appears without alteration and goes over into the reprise of the chief theme. This, however, comes to a sudden and dramatic close in its 29th measure (measure 210). What of this ending?


Sorrows Misinterpreted

Chopin was far less often in a humorous mood than were Haydn and Beethoven or Mozart, and the attempts of the Polish writers like Kleczyński,[3] for example, to make him out as chiefly a humorous composer betray the deepest misunderstanding of him. Kleczyński has interpreted an A-minor mazurka of teh deepest, brooding sorrow as a piece of humor, furnished in with a ridiculously unpoetic program, and named it “the little Jew,” [“Żydek”). As a fourteen year old boy the writer was giving concerts in Warsaw and there became acquainted with Kleczyński at the house of the banker Mendelssohn (no relation of the great composer!). Even then he wondered at Kleczyński’s flagrant misunderstanding of the true greatness of Chopin. The writer was the more horrified to learn that an excellent writer on musical subjects, as well as a musician and a biographer of Chopin, Hugo Leichentritt, took Kleczyński’s poor joke in earnest and treated this mazurka (which is a monument to despair) as a Żydek-Mazurka.

But there were moments when Chopin developed a clever humor which did not conflict with the greatness of his art. To these rare moments belong, for example, the F-major Waltz, Op. 34, No. 3, the mazurka in B-major and the G-flat mazurka, Op. 7 (where, for instance, an ascending scale of an octave and a half, descending a half octave, is metamorphosed into mazurka rhythm). In the waltz, Op. 42, at the point where the principal theme, in its 29th measure (measure 210), breaks suddenly off, the two melody notes, of this measure repeat, twice, an octave lower, and are completed by a third measure (212).

Example 5.

Here it is plain to see that an awkward dancer has stumbled in the crowd, lost his balance and rhythm, and turned about on the same spot, in order to get into the rhythm again. (I challenge anyone to give me another explanation of those three ominous measures!). This little episode which often occurs at a ball (especially with the dancers of Chopin’s’ generation, where extraordinary technic and endurance were required for dancing) has a decided influence on the continuation of the waltz. The spirit of the piece is enormously enhanced, the calm dance of the noble pair becomes and orgy (as if it were hardly worthwhile to preserve aristocratic reserve after such a mishap), the ball-orchestra is heard again, Chopin modulates through A major and back to A-flat major, and a splendid chord of the second discloses a new dimension in the bass, which strides down the following scale.

Example 6.

All these eight measures appeal to great musicians and great pianists alike (measures 249 to 256). After those eight measures four others modulate to D major and back to A-flat major, and for the sixth and last time the passage episode is introduced, raising itself, this time, to a most passionate outburst, and closing with an accelerando of thirteen measures partly derived from the principal theme.

Now, how to study this most difficult (technically, at least) of all Chopin waltzes?

  1. Don’t underrate the difficulty of the beginning trill! Fingers two and three provide the most natural of all fingerings, but many pianists use two and four. A very brilliant trill can be achieved with the fingering one and three. Trills should be practiced as fast as one can. Slow practicing has no result whatever. The hands should always feel relaxed, and any movement of the hand and forearm may prove beneficial, especially if one is using the fingering with the thumb. The afterbeat must be played slowly in order that the musical listener may perceive that it is the beginning of the lower voice.
  2. The principal theme of the waltz offers hardly any difficulty of the right hand (measures 9 to 12, 25, 28 and so forth). The left hand must be played lightly and very clearly, and must therefore be subjected to special study. For this it is particularly important that the eyes be turned away from the keyboard and the left hand be practiced much without the right.
  3. The passage episode which recurs six times (measures 40 and those that follow) is the kernel of the technical difficulties of the piece. It must be practiced at first with exact observation of the marks of expression and fingering, very slowly. Each separate tone must take its part in the crescendos of the ascending passages and the decrescendos of the descending, but must also often be practiced with perfectly equal tones.The one exception is the thumb which is to be raised hardly at all and must make a tone which is weaker than that of the other fingers. It is especially important that the arm should be kept loose and free and that the fingers, as in all legatissimo passages, should be lifted very little. This principle is derived from Chopin himself (His pupil, Carl Mikuli, with whom the writer studied as a boy of ten, always referred to Chopin’s custom). The writer himself has good reason to know that this manner of practice and performance goes back as far as Kalkbrenner—that excellent pianist and very indifferent composer who lived at that time in Paris, and who played the piano and so amazed the twenty-year-old Chopin that the latter wished to become his pupil!Teacher as PupilThe end of the matter was that Kalkbrenner required Chopin to promise to remain with him as pupil three years and during that time not to appear in public. But Chopin’s family as well as his teacher of composition in Warsaw, Elsner, suspected some trick, and feared that Kalkbrenner wished to restrain CHopin from playing in public for three years in order to make Chopin’s style his own, and then to adorn with it the insipid virtuosity of Kalkbrenner. In other words he wished to learn from his pupil in order that he might put to his own use the fruits of this genius. This was hardly ethical; that Kalkbrenner’s self-satisfaction was so great (on this point read Heine’s criticism of the music in Paris) that he may well have thought that he was superior to Chopin who was then very modest in manner.Nevertheless, Kalkbrenner is to be credited with discovering the important principle (wrongly contested by the moderns) of the loose writs for octaves and staccato, and also the right manner of executing legatissimo passages. Of both these discoveries the Memoirs of Sir Charles Hallé (a famous pianist and conductor of German origin who later lived and worked in Manchester) give incontestable proof.
  4. The second (mazurka-like) subsidiary theme (its prototype in the waltz, Op. 69, is also to be accented on the third beat) demands no especial technical study (measures 58 to 72).
  5. But, on the contrary, the double notes on the dominant of D-flat, in the third subsidiary, are among the most difficult tasks of the piece. It will be a great advantage to practice the upper notes of these intervals separately, with the fingers allotted to the 3, 4, 5 (measures 89 to 94).
  6. The fourth (lyric) subsidiary must begin sostenuto. That means “sustained,” “calmly.” From its seventeenth measure (measure 137) on, the melody is enriched with a lower voice and appears now in easy double note groups. Here, likewise, the upper voice is to be practiced with the weak fingers alone.
  7. when the passage theme enters for th e next to the last time, after the sostenuto, there begins, after four measures (measure 217), the working out episode of the piece in which Chopin shows his masterly power and glowing imagination. For this working out the third subsidiary with its double notes affords the material, an in it the pianistic difficulties are increased, but its effectiveness as well is heightened.
  8. The passage episode enters for the sixth and last time, makes wider skips in the Dominant in measure 273-274 and leads into a Coda of feverish intensity happily developed out of the principal theme.



[1] The first name of Moritz (Maurycy) Rosenthal (1862-1946) is spelled here as “Moriz;” the same version appears in the New Grove. This study was originally published in The Etude Music Magazine 52, no. 4 (April 1934): 221-222, 265. For a biographical note about Rosenthal see the authors’ biographies or the Polish/Jewish/Music! Conference Program, Concert II, in this Journal. [Back]

[2]. The manuscript of this Waltz was not preserved; the work was published simultaneously in Leipzig, Paris and London, 1840. [Back]

[3]. Rosenthal misspells Kleczyński’s name as “Kleczinski.” [Back]

[4]. The article is followed by “Self-Test questions on Mr. Rosenthal’s Article,” The questions are: (1) In what ways were Delacroix and Fontana of service to Chopin? (2) What picture do measures 1-40 conjure up in our minds? (3) In what way did Kleczyński falsely conceive the mood of Chopin’s music? (4) How should trills be practiced? (5) What should be the position of the thumb in legatissimo passages?” [Back]


Moritz, Moriz or Maurycy Rosenthal was born in 1862 in Lemberg(i.e. Lvov, died in New York in 1946) and studied at the Lemberg Conservatory (with Karol Mikuli) and in Vienna. An encounter with Liszt (in 1877) transformed his life: he became the old man’s last disciple for nine years, even following him into studying philosophy at Vienna University. In 1888-9, and in 1898 he toured the U.S., and in 1895 he gave concerts in London. Rosenthal settled in New York (with his wife, Hedwig Kanner) in 1938. The reviewers of his American concerts called him “an astonishing master of technique” and “the Prince of Technique” who plays “in a tremendously brilliant and telling manner . . . with immense speed and precision.” At first he was admired solely for his extraordinary virtuoso technique; he is said to have played “like a thunderbolt” and certainly did not belong to the group of the “poets” of the piano. In time, Rosenthal became respected for his beautiful phrasing and great tone. He was considered one of the finest interpreters of Chopin’s music. His compositions include highly difficult piano works, e.g. Papillons, as well as many transcriptions and variation cycles. He is also a co-author of an advanced piano method.