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Work / Evolution of style



Stylistic change in Chopin's music


I. Models of Periodization

II. Chromaticism and Tonality  

III. Syntax and Form

IV.  Conclusion



The reason why the problem of stylistic change in Chopin's music has not always been accorded special attention lies in the nature of Chopin's musical language, whose evolution is not accompanied by spectacular turning points that result from a shift in the employed means of compositional technique.  The musical language developed by the Viennese Classics, with its tonal laws, syntactic rules, musical forms and genres, served not only Chopin, but also all other composers of the Romantic period.  It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that there emerged in the music of some of these composers tendencies which fixed the course for subsequent systematic transformations of musical language at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.  Changes in Chopin's style are not marked by dramatic fissures, but reveal the qualities of a gradual maturing: first through the assimilation and extension of the range of artistic means found in the musical tradition, later - through the formation of new artistic values on this basis.  Thus, the evolution of Chopin's style does not consist of "qualitative turning points", but rather on "quantitative shifts".

Some genres in Chopin's output can be regarded as an area in which there emerged specific harmonic, tonal, stylistic and formal innovations.  These new qualities do not always entail permanent changes in Chopin's style, and are not fixed in a stable association with other elements of the given genre, just as they do not always cause its irreversible change.  The evolution of those genres which Chopin employed all his life consists of only the intensity with which a given tendency manifests itself.  Thus, a clear double-trackedness of development is discernible: in some compositions the innovative elements present within the perimeter of a genre may not be found at all (as in the Mazurkas of op. 63), while in others they are quite pronounced (cf. Mazurkas of op. 59).


I.  Models of Periodization

Periodizations of Chopin's output advanced by researchers usually did not make reference to strictly musical criteria.  A progressive "breaking up" of the stages of Chopin's creativity was characteristic of such attempts at periodization, put forward as early as the beginning of the twentieth century.  What are the most characteristic models of periodization of Chopin's changes of style in works devoted to his music?  The view according to which Chopin's style is unchangeable assumed dominance in the inter-war period, and was inherited from nineteenth-century writings on Chopin.  At the time, the focus was on creating a system of Chopin's musical devices, both on the harmonic [Bronarski 1935], as well as the melodic plane [Wójcik-Keuprulian 1930].  Theses about the invariability of his style expressed the general view that changes of a quantitative character do not supply sufficiently motivated premises for the periodization of output.  A typical view on this issue was presented by Ludwik Bronarski: "Chopin's evolution is clear and continuous, albeit only in the general makeup of his oeuvre - not in its particular stages" [Bronarski 1935: 460].  Zdzisław Jachimecki also proclaimed himself in favour of the uniformity of Chopin's style, and emphasized its full and early cristallization, as well as its independence of other Romantic personal styles [Jachimecki 1957: 37]. The same view, though tied in with a value judgement, was advocated by Alfred Einstein. According to him, "after opus 10 - the first collection of étiudes - there are scarcely any unevennesses, and at the most only slight fluctuations in the maturity of Chopin's work" [Einstein 1947: 216].  The value of this oldest standpoint on the subject of the evolution of Chopin's style does not seem altogether time-worn.  It retains some validity in the light of the stylistic changes of late Romantic composers, especially those whose musical language displayed signs of the major-minor system crisis and the disintegration of traditional musical syntax.  Pitted against the output of composers such as Richard Wagner, Alexander Skriabin or Gustav Mahler, Chopin's style must inevitably be perceived as more homogenous.  On the other hand, one cannot but see essential differences between particular pieces within the perimeter of a chosen genre (cf. Sonata in c-minor op. 4 [1827-28] and Sonata in b minor op. 58 [1844], as well as the Polonaise in c sharp minor from op. 26 [1835] and Polonaise-fantasia in A flat major op. 61 [1846]).  The comparison lets us conclude that transformational changes in Chopin's musical language not only did exist, but that they also transformed in a decisive way the inherited genre models.  It is undoubtedly those visible differences of "border cases" within the confines of particular genres which caused that in post-war studies on Chopin - in spite of further works continuing the synchronic (as opposed to diachronic) studies of genres [Barbag 1927; Miketta 1949; Chomiński 1950, 1960a; Feicht 1948; Wilkowska 1949] - a decade-based divison of the evolution of Chopin's style began to emerge (the twenties: "the genesis of style", the thirties: "cristallization of style" and the forties: "stylistic synthesis"). The spokesmen of this new model of periodization were, above others, Gerald Abraham [1946], Jurij Kremlev [1949] and Józef M. Chomiński [1960b]. Symptomatically, the model did not emerge as the effect of holistic studies on the evolution of Chopin's style, but was a product of various criteria, which were mostly biographic, pertaining to musical form, and axiological.

From among the enumerated scholars, only Chomiński clearly formulated the criterion of his decade-based division of Chopin's stylistic evolution. He wrote: "the evolutional line runs from an interest taken in classical forms in the first period, through an intensified development of single-movement forms characteristic of Romantic music, up to the return to cyclic forms and more extensive works, enriched by the experience of the second period" [Chomiński 1960b: 29]. This periodizational model of Chopin's style, strongly tied in with Alfred Lorenz' theory of the three-stage development of style, retains some validity from today's perspective. Categories such as "the beginning years", "crystallization" and "synthesis" apply - thanks to their universality - also to Chopin's oeuvre.

Almost parralel to the decade-based model of periodization, attempts at dividing Chopin's musical output into five phases were cristallizing in post-war musicological literature. These were probably aimed at diversifying the decade-based model (found to be too general), and constituted an attempt to connect various periodizational criteria [Cherbuliez 1948]. An example of such an approach is a five-period periodization by Mieczysław Tomaszewski [1979], who marks off the following stages in the evolution of Chopin's style: 1817-1829 ("Period of youth"), 1829-1831 ("Romantic period"), 1832-1835 ("Period of virtuosity"), 1835/36-1845/46 ("Mature period") and 1845/46-1849 ("Last period").

As with Charbuliez, a characteristic disparity of criteria (which indicate a different aspect in each period) is found in Tomaszewski's division. The specifications of each period point to criteria that are, respectively: biological, general-artistic, sociological and refering to performance, axiological and oridinal. At a later date, Tomaszewski expanded his initial approach, implementing a division of Chopin's ouput into eight stages in a synthesis designed for an encyclopedia of music [Tomaszewski 1985]: "Childhood attempts" (1817-1823), "Postclassical and sentimental conventionalities" (1823-1826), "Warsaw virtuosity" (1826-1829), "Romantic turning point" (1829-1831), "Paris virtuosity" (1832-1835), "Dynamic Romantic synthesis" (1835-1840), "Contemplative Romantic synthesis" (1841-1846) and "Post-Romantic suggestions" (1846-1849).


II. Chromaticism and Tonality

Deliberations regarding changes in Chopin's style are complicated not only by the lack of characteristic, qualitative changes in his musical language. Obstacles that impede the identification of transformational mechanisms are also posed by the temporal variability of the composer's choice of genres. The dominance of certain genres in particular stages of Chopin's development, pointed out by Chomiński [1960b], indicates the lack of a uniform genre basis for analysis and interpretation. Given the subtlety of the creative evolution in question, the study of Chopin's whole oeuvre would leave doubts as to whether the discernible changes are in fact an effect of the evolution of expressional means, or perhaps a result of introducing new genres. The question to which the research group working under my direction at the University of Warsaw at the beginning of the eighties could not find a satisfactory answer in writings on Chopin did not simply concern the need of another periodization of Chopin's output, but pertained to the character of transformational changes taking place within those musical genres which Chopin employed all his life [Przemiany stylu Chopina 1993]. Only sonata forms, nocturnes, polonaises and mazurkas belonged to such genres. In his more recent study, Andrzej Tuchowski added ten more pieces to this group (scherzos, ballads, the Fantasia in f minor op. 49 and Barcarolla in F sharp major op. 60), describing them as "Romantic narrative and dramatic genres" [1996: 86-111]. Inquiry into a personal stylistic norm on the harmonic plane lead to the singling out of chromatic texture [Gołąb 1991, 1995] as a problem that was not accorded special attention in studies on Chopin's harmony, in spite of the composer being recognized as a special phenomenon of nineteeth-century harmony.  The existence of harmonic textures was appreciated in Chopin's harmony, but its inherent "generative value" within the perspective of changes in personal style was not discovered [Bronarski 1935: 260-272; Borris 1960: 108].  Chromatic textures, being one of the most personal features of Chopin's style, consist of a pitch continuum governed by the principle of half-tone shifts of chord components that assumes various forms: from simple scale passages in the melody through strict chord shifts and free sequences, to the expanded forms of the latter ones, sometimes organizing the pitch succession of the whole form (Prelude in e minor op. 28 no. 4).

Chromatic textures existent in Chopin's opused work manifest essential differences in the course of their development; however, they are variegated in respect to tonality.  The set of harmonic and tonal traits that is characteristic of Chopin's early chromatic textures is what I refer to as accidental chromaticism, to indicate the fact that this chromaticism is entirely "controlled" by diatonicism and does not disrupt tonal relationships in the composition.  Accidental chromaticism is characterized by a still clear opposition of melodic and harmonic textures.  Thus, in both dimensions of the musical space, accidental chromaticism is a category that is based on the opposition of diatonicism and chromaticism fundamental in the music of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. 

The basis on which Chopin's first experiences with chromaticism in melody were formed, was of course the chromatic scale.  The first movement of Sonata in c minor op. 4 (1928) is an example of an early, interpolational approach to chromaticism in melody.  A similar type of chromaticism is present especially in the etiudes, in which Chopin used three brands of melodic-figurational accidental chromaticism (unisons, thirds, sixths).  Use of such means is found in the following Etiudes: a minor op. 10 no.2, b minor op. 25 no. 10, a minor op. 25 no. 11, g sharp minor op. 25 no. 6, A flat major op. 10 no. 10, D flat major op. 25 no. 8.  Early chromatic textures in melody do not have an essential influence on tonal relationships; hence, in the case of such textures one can speak of stable tonality, in which chromaticism is merely a tonal "colouring".  While on the melodic plane Chopin's chromaticism is subservient to diationicism, on the harmonic plane it consititutes an extension of diatonicism.  Accidental chromaticism manifests itself in harmony through strict pitch-shifting of a chord, and sequences (repetitions of a model of harmonic relations).  The mixtures of Chopin's earlier works assume the form of successions of first-inversion triads, dominant-seventh and diminished-seventh chords shifted along the chromatic scale.  In strict sequences, chromatically-shifted relations prevail.  These include: dissonant seventh chord - triad, cadential models, and seventh chords on the circle of fifths.  Such compositional choices result in a characteristic suspension ("extension") of the tonal process, i.e. of relations of a funtional character.  Examples of accidental chromaticism are supplied by Chopin's works from the second half of the twenties and from the thirties (especially rondos, concertos and variations), which employ conventional figures found in the resources of brillant style pianistic virtuosity. 

I have assigned the term essential chromaticism to the set of harmonic and tonal norms that is characteristic of Chopin's late chromatic textures.  This new type of chromaticism, which is not mentioned in the theory of music of Chopin's time, is a rare phenomenon in the compositional techniques of the representatives of musical Romanticism; one can identify it in the music of Spohr, Schubert and Liszt, among others.  Essential chromaticism is an integrated texture, in which no qualitative opposition between melody and harmony exists.  Melody becomes an element of tonal language on its own, while on the harmonic plane the melodic tendency of the leading note assumes prominence.  Hence, in the case of "late Chopin" chromaticism, notions of a melodic-tonal chromaticism or harmonic-tonal chromaticism cease to be viable, and harmonic and tonal structures must be regarded as being melodically dependent.  From a strictly harmonic point of view, the norms of essential chromaticism are not directly connected with a diatonicism "in control", but constitute an independent, autonomous area of phenomena.  Examples of essential chromaticism are supplied by Chopin's music starting from the end of the thirties. 

Among the formal musical categories connected with Chopin's essential chromaticism, on the melodic plane one must single out narrow-range motives and subjects, the phenomenon of the intermingling of period architecture with a process-based unfolding of form, and the tendency to obscure the segmentation of phrases.  In harmony, the interpolational character of seventh chords in the confines of "pillar" triad harmony becomes blurred, while at the base of dominant seventh harmony there lie both dominants as "chromogenic" functions (Prelude in e minor op. 28 no. 4).  The extension of the major-minor system is thus accompanied by the intensification of alterations, visible especially in the "last" Mazurka in f minor WN 65.  All of the mentioned processes, transforming the harmonic dimension both morphologically and fuctionally, have led in "late" Chopin to what I have called labile tonality, which is a new type of tonality characterized by the tendency to abolish permanent centers (Prelude in c sharp minor op. 45).          


III.  Syntax and Form

In studies on the changes in Chopin's musical syntax William Rothstein [1988] pioneered in tackling the problem of phrase expansion, i.e. the procedure of expanding the music with the use of interpolation, extended cadences and other compositional means.  Focussing on nocturnes and mazukas, the author presented the problem of the internal evolution of Chopin's style between 1830 and 1846 in the following way: "no other composer so frequently slurred against the phrase structure of his music" (Rothstein [1988: 124]).  After a series of convincing analyses, Rothstein found that in both of the mentioned genres a special process is in place, which stretches from the "tyranny of the four-measure phrase" to the "unending melody".  "During the decade of the 1840s - writes Rothstein - both composers [i.e. Chopin and Wagner] were moving towards an increasingly seamless style of melodic writing, which in Wagner's case has become known under the name of ‘unending melody'"; the author also notices the constant "tendency to minimise the articulation of divisions between phrases, and between subphrases" [1988: 128].  The analysis of this process is accompanied by references to the Polonaise-fantasia op. 61 and - to a lesser extent - the Scherzo in E major op. 54.  However, a capital example is furnished by an authentic, twenty-measure "poetic slur" of the Nocturne in G major op. 37 no. 1 (mm. 3-25), pointed out by the author.

Another truly insightful work is a dissertation by Elżbieta Witkowska-Zaremba on the subject of mazurkas [1993].  Though the author has refrained from an attempt at periodization, and chose to focus more on the continuity of the transformation of musical language than on particular transformational moments, her analyses do not leave any doubt as to the unique dynamicism of the genre in question from the point of view of syntax and form.  A careful study of the author's work allows for a certain generalization to be made.  Chopin's mazurkas evolved from a classical, additively-shaped dance form (Mazurkas op. 6, 7, 24), to one that is emancipated from traditional limitations, and made up of open segments (Mazurkas 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 syntactic and formal transformation results from the gradual blurring of "antecedent-consequent" relationships, slurring "against the [grammatical] phrase" that stands in conflict with cadential punctuation and sometimes reorganizes the form of the composition (beginning with the Mazurkas of opp. 30 and 33), the retardation or impediment of the harmonic course (retardation), the technique of breaking the phrase (Mazurka op. 30 no. 4, mm. 5-32), the tendency to blur the strophic feature through grouping the stanzas into larger segments, and the masking of caesuras between stanzas (Mazurka op. 50 no. 3, mm.33-45).  Finally, it supports the existence of what Hugo Leichtentritt [1921] called "the mark of symphonism" in Mazurkas from op. 41 no. 4 and op. 50 no. 3, poining at the "drama of development" taking place in the last stage of the pieces. 

Studying stylistic changes in Chopin's nocturnes, Andrzej Tuchowski [1993] drew attention to elements that dynamicize the formal course of this genre, as well as the shortening of recapitulations or employment of their textural and formal variants in forms of the ABA type.  The process is begun by "faithful" recapitulations in the Nocturnes from opp. 9 and 27, and completed by compositional devices characteristic of the genre of fantasia or piano poem in the Nocturnes of op. 62.  Another trait explored in late nocturnes is the intensification of the expositional factor through creating sequences of musical thoughts bearing the significance of sonata thematic groups (Tuchowski regards the Nocturne in E flat major op. 55 no. 2 to be the first piece in which this innovation is introduced).  Finally, the author draws attention to the progressive loss of ornamentation, tied in with the turning away from the stile brillant tradition (Jasińska [1995]), and the increasing tendency toward linearity and incorporation of polyphonic elements; Chopin's late nocturnes reveal the rise of a framework for late Romantic decorative texture, characterized by a variant number of voices and free transfer from real to hidden polyphony. 

Similar remarks in reference to the polonaise are made by Tomasz Baranowski [1993].  The transformational mechanisms discernible in genres that Chopin made use of all his life are characterized by similar traits.  A progressive and significant expansion of the formal continuum is clearly to be seen in these genres.  The contrast between formal structures, connnected with the differentiation of the expressional function of particular parts and stages of the piece, is gradually intensified.  Chopin increasingly shifts the emphasis onto a process-based shaping of form (forma formans), abandoning the classical approach to form as a state (forma formata). The role of formal interpolations (introductions, episodes and extended bridges) also becomes more prominent.  Changes in respect to form are integrally connected with transformations in syntax.  For example, the classical phrase division and the accompanying strong contrast on the level of basic syntactic categories is clearly observable in the youth polonaises, but in Polonaises op. 26 and op. 40 the regular division of phrases is decisively blurred as result of the increase of the significance of a process-based approach, with the contrast on the level of basic syntactic categories gradually disappearing.  In Polonaises from opp. 44, 52 and 61 we encounter a further expansion of subjects, an intensified merging of the process-based and periodic approaches, disintegration of clear syntactic divisions and a strong, thematic integration of the whole lacking in earlier works [Baranowski 1993: 106].


IV.  Conclusion

Is the nature of transformational changes of Chopin's style, seen only in its general outlines and rich in both "regressive" moments and "anticipating" phenomena so complicated as to discourage one to attempt another marking out of dividing lines in his oeuvre, after numerous more or less successful periodizations of Chopin's output?  It seems that if one adopts the premises of the cultural theory of emergence, one arrives at an alternative view of the problem of Chopin's stylistic evolution.  We should not - as did Zofia Chechlińska [1995: 179] - overestimate the significance of the fact that the discussion of a new model of periodization has sometimes lead to slightly different diachronic divisions, since they were made in reference to different material to start with.  The periodization proposed for the polonaises by Baranowski [1993: 106] differs from that suggested for the sonatas by Helman [1993: 66] and for the polonaises and mazurkas by Rothstein [1998: 128].  These apparent controversies were probably magnified by Witkowska-Zaręba, who decided to refrain from making such a decision [1993: 131], and called to witness Kallberg's opinion, according to which many traits of mature style are to be seen already in the earliest compositions and are perfected in the course of subsequent years [1986: 17].

    From the study conducted by the group under my direction and by myself, it seems to issue that changes in Chopin's style run in four principle stages:

1. Adaptational stage (to ca. 1825), characterized by the composer's reception of the stylistic means present in the classical musical heritage.

2. Promorphic stage (from ca. 1825 to the mid-thirties), connected - as writes Danuta Jasińska - with the composer's participation in the European heritage of instrumental music of the nineteenth century.  This stage is characterized by a "personalization [of musical language] which overcomes the schematicism of conventionality, and thanks to which the spectacular gestures inherited from the brillante virtuosity penetrate the sense of structure, and, as such, dynamicize changes of personal style" [1995: 140].

3. Transformational stage (second half of the 1830s), in which was achieved the chief transformation of harmonic texture into a free essential chromaticism, and the tendency to shake the tonal unity of works became manifest.  Within the perimeter of musical syntax, a revision of the principles of classical period structure in favour of a free syntax was made, with the breaking and expanding of the musical phrase in its drive toward an open phrase. 

4. Neomorphic stage (the 1840s) of "late Chopin", characterized by the intensification of all premises which became apparent in the transformational stage.  One must emphasize here the increasing significance of polyphony, the elimination of melodic ornamentation, the growing independency of particular voices, as well as the tendency to hybridize the form, the turn away from the means of stile brillante, and an enhancement of expression.

Maciej Gołąb
English translation: Maksymilian Kapelański


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