Chopin's well-known set of Polish Songs, Op 74, have been recorded a number of times in the past, though not always by Polish singers. Here mezzo soprano Urszula Kryger is singing in her own language. Also on the disc is a selection of songs from an unusual source: the famous 19th-century soprano Pauline Viardot—friend of Chopin, Berlioz and others, and Turgenev's inamorata—arranged, with Chopin's permission, a number of his mazurkas for voice and piano, commissioning texts from a Parisian poet friend. She sang them all over Europe, including London. Here are four of them.
17 October 1999 is the 150th anniversary of Chopin's death and this disc joins the many others of his music which are being issued to commemorate this event.
Our singer, Urszula Kryger, has already enjoyed spectacular success in the short time since she stormed the juries of various international singing competitions in the early 90s.
Other recommended albums
His music has been described as ‘the epitome of the very soul of the piano’, ‘the piano brought to life’, ‘winged keys’. Indeed, Frédéric Chopin is usually associated with his piano ballades and nocturnes, mazurkas and polonaises, études and preludes, sonatas and scherzos. And yet, alongside that great road, there was a small path, modest but noteworthy: his songs both great and small.
It seems that Chopin wrote his songs casually—on the margin, as it were, of his piano works. He wrote them whenever he came across a poem describing his own mood or feelings at any given moment. He also wrote to satisfy social needs and friendship—his songs became an intimate diary of sorts. More than those by other composers, they bear an autobiographical aspect. Also, the lyrics—their choice never accidental—seem to betray his changing states of mind, his personal and historical contexts.
Chopin composed, in all, no more than thirty songs with piano accompaniment. Not all of them were put on paper. In turn, not all that were written down deserved preservation—some never went beyond a sketch, an outline, a design for a song. Thus, only eighteen remain. These can charm and move.
Chopin published none of his songs. Although Liszt and Jane Stirling supposed that he planned to do so, there is no evidence to that effect; they remained among the ineditae. According to the last will of his most severe critic—himself—they were destined to share the fate of some forty unpublished piano works—the fire. Fortunately that did not happen. Julian Fontana, Chopin’s schoolfriend, collected the scattered manuscripts and, with the family’s consent, published sixteen songs—those which he thought worthy of the composer’s name—in 1859. They were printed simultaneously by Gebethner & Wolff in Warsaw (as 'Zbiór spiewów polskich Fryderyka Chopina'—'A Collection of Polish Songs by Frédéric Chopin') and by A M Schlesinger in Berlin (as ‘16 Polnische Lieder’). Because of Russian censorship, Fontana was unable to publish one of those he had laid hands on in Warsaw: 'Spiew z mogily' ('Leci liscie z drzewa'—'Leaves are falling') appeared separately in Berlin as 'Chant du tombeau' ('Hymn from the Tomb').
The songs were written in the twenty or so years between 1829 (possibly 1827) and 1847. Despite their similarities, they exhibit many differences of character and expression, of genre and style. The first few, still early Romantic, were unable to shake off conventions typical of sentimentalism and pseudo-classicism; the last, 'Z gór, gdzie dzwigali' ('Melodia'), a late-Romantic song, brought lyricism with a tragic hue, an expressive articulation of personality.
There are two strands in Chopin’s songs that complement each other and entwine in a way characteristic of the Romantic songs of Poland where quite often, in life as in art, the erotic had to coexist with the heroic. The strand of the tender song manifested itself in those jotted down in young girls' and ladies' diaries and albums. It was expressed in genres well suited to the subject: the idyll or 'piosnka sielska' (e.g. 'Zyczenie', 'The Maiden's Wish'), the romanza ('Pierscien', 'The Ring') and an epic-lyrical scene ('Piosnka Litewska', 'Lithuanian Song'). And, finally, in a love-lyrical Lied, 'Moja Pieszczotka', 'My Darling'.
The other strand included songs relating to the contemporary history of his country and to the fate of a whole generation plagued by oppression, revolt, emigration. It was born in masculine company, in an atmosphere of reminiscences of the uprising and in moments of particularly acute pangs of loneliness and longing. Works of this strand related—in the conventions of their genre—to social and convivial songs (e.g. 'Hulanka', 'Merrymaking' or 'Drinking Song'), historical and rebels' songs ('Wojak', 'The Warrior'), Ukrainian dumkas ('Dwojaki koniec', 'The Two Corpses') and folk ballads ('Narzeczony', 'The Bridegroom'). The latest few represent reflexive lyrics close to the Lied genre ('Melodia').
Chopin composed all of his songs to poems by Polish writers and his contemporaries: Witwicki, Zaleski, Pol, Mickiewicz and Krasinski. He was able to meet almost all of them. The greatest number of songs (ten) were written to poems by an early-Romantic poet from Warsaw, Stefan Witwicki (1801–1847), from the collection 'Piosnki Sielskie' ('Idylls', 1830). Witwicki was a friend of the family. He had strong folkloric interests and backed Chopin’s emphasis on the national. Chopin dedicated his Opus 41 Mazurkas to Witwicki. Also of the Warsaw period was the composer’s close acquaintance with the soldier-poet Bohdan Zaleski (1802–1886), the author of three texts set to music by Chopin in the 1840s. Zaleski’s folklore stylizations were based on Ukrainian songs and dances. Wincenty Pol (1807– 1872), another freedom fighter of the November Uprising, published a collection of highly popular poems of the revolt, 'Songs of Janusz' (1836). According to Fontana, Chopin composed music to ten or even twelve of these on their publication. Only one has survived: 'Spiew z mogily', ('Leaves are falling').
Chopin composed two highly expressive love songs to poems by Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), Poland’s leading Romantic. One of these ('Precz z moich oczu', 'Out of my sight') might have been the first text put to music by the composer. Chopin's last song ('Melodia, 'Z gór, gdzie dzwigali') was written to a poem by another great Polish Romantic, Zygmunt Krasinski (1812–1859); they loved the same woman, Delfina Potocka.
Treating his songs as semi-private compositions, Chopin did not include them in any of his concerts, the more so as they were composed to Polish texts. It is quite possible that they could be heard at times in Warsaw, Dresden, and Paris salons, performed by some of his intimates: his sister Ludwika, Maria Wodzinska, Delfina Potocka. Fontana’s publication, though belatedly, introduced the songs to the public, and they became a fixture in the repertoire of Polish singers. Others treated them with some reserve. It was by no means easy to sing them in Polish, while other languages—for the songs were translated and published in twelve other languages—made them lose their inimitable character. More successful on the concert platform were Liszt's piano transcriptions of six of them.
There is much to suggest, however, that the time has finally come for Chopin’s songs, as can be seen, for instance, in the number of recordings of the whole collection in recent decades. They include such interesting interpretations as those by Eugenia Zareska with Giorgio Favaretto, Elisabeth Södeström with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Leyla Gencer with Nikita Magaloff, Stefania Woytowicz and Andrzej Bachleda with Wanda Klimowicz, Stefania Toczyska with Janusz Olejniczak, Teresa Zylis-Gara with Halina Czerny-Stefánska, Françoise Ogéas with Eva Osinska, and H Januszewska with M Drewnowski.
Chopin’s songs brought to the European Romantic song repertoire a character and a tone it had lacked before. They brought a simplicity of a first-hand folkloric inspiration, an almost naive, youthful tenderness, a boisterous aplomb, a nostalgic reflection, and finally a deep feeling for one’s country. Read with an understanding of tone and style, sung and played in a natural yet intimate way, they can charm and transform, move and disturb.
Wiosna 'Spring' 1838. A bucolic landscape is evoked by nostalgic memory. The constant oscillation between the minor and the major (G minor/B flat major) creates a mood of anticipation senza fine. This dumka, a melancholy counterpart of the idyll, ‘piosnka sielska’, should perhaps be hummed rather than sung.
Gdzie lubi 'There where she loves', or 'What she likes' 1829/30. The tone of this sentimentally lyrical miniature is part naive, part ironic: a young girl, very much like the one in Greuze's painting The Broken Pitcher, is the one 'powerless to say where her heart will stray'. Both the metre 6/8 and the arabesque of the melody are inherited from a romanza. Dancing strains of a mazurka leap into the very middle of the song.
Hulanka 'Drinking Song', also known as 'Merrymaking' and 'Bacchanale' 1830. The song of a young man, carried away by his temperament and addressing a pretty servant girl, is conducted in the rhythm of a mazurka. It is a boisterous, risoluto, wine-drinking song, said to have been improvised by Chopin at his farewell party with friends before leaving Warsaw.
Piosnka Litewska 'Lithuanian Song' 1831. A charming lyrical-epic scene, neatly sketched and with a witty ending. Such a dialogue of a mother with her daughter, who 'wet her pretty garland' at a tryst with her lover, can be found in many folklores. Chopin used a Lithuanian song in a Polish translation. The piano part discreetly recreates the scene’s bucolic, rural background.
Czary 'Witchcraft'; also known as 'Charms' and 'Enchantment' 1829/30. A little song of a young man hopelessly in love, with an optimistic ending. It has the shape and character of a Ukrainian dumka, very much like the ones sung by protagonists of Polish vaudevilles in Chopin’s time. Deemed too plain by Fontana, it was removed from the posthumous edition.
Sliczny Chlopiec 'The Handsome Lad' or 'Charming Lad' 1841. A young girl's delight with her lover’s beauty is heralded to the world at large with unrestrained enthusiasm in a joyful dance. The poet picked up the lyrics from Ukrainian folklore; the composer has them sung to the melody of a Polish mazurka.
Zyczenie 'My Wish' or 'The Maiden's Wish' 1829/30. The wish of a young girl is expressed sentimentally yet with such grace, naivety and simplicity that the audience cannot but smile in acquiescence. Chopin imparted to 'The Maiden's Wish' a shape typical for the idyll, 'piosnka sielska'. With a folk-like dancing mode, the song has the rhythm of a mazurka; its internal refrain ('neither on lakes nor forests') rocks as a kujawiak; the piano's ritornello is an oberek. Two slightly differing versions of the song exist; that of the autograph is now increasingly used.
Moja Pieszczotka known as 'My Darling' or 'My Joys' 1832/37. This is the poet's subtle love poem, turned by the composer into a lyrical song in a great concerto style. The two-phase narration is conducted in the rhythm of a ballroom waltz, flavoured with a mazurka. It revolves with aplomb and charm towards its ecstatic final climax: 'I only want to kiss, kiss, kiss her!' There is much to suggest that the song was written for Delfina Potocka.
Precz z moich oczu 'Out of my sight!' 1829 (possibly 1827). A lyrical song inspired by the poet’s early love poem. If the date for the first sketch of the work is correct, this is Chopin’s earliest song. The first of its two parts ('Larghetto appassionato', F minor), expressing the moment of an angry parting, has been composed in an elevated style. The second, reflective part ('Andante espressivo', A flat major) is closer in its character to a romanza.
Wojak 'The Warrior' 1831. This song, composed in Vienna, was the composer's spontaneous reaction to the events of the November Uprising of 1830 in which he was unable to take part ('Why can't I at least beat the drum!'). The dramatic scene of a young man going to war has been expressed by two associated idioms: the heroic tone of the piece ('So onward into the fray!') has been adapted from rebel songs. At the same time, the closeness of the song-ballad genre is evident in the agitato of the musical narration, the rhetorical gestures and the à cheval rhythm.
Spiew z mogily 'Leci liscie z drzewa', 'Leaves are falling', also known as 'The Orphan' and 'Hymn from the Tomb' 1836. The only preserved song of the ten or twelve improvised in Paris among emigré friends to the rebel poet's works. Indeed, it still seems much like a recorded improvisation. Rhapsodic in character, the song mourns the fate of a nation and of a generation rather than individual events. An 'expressive' yet internalized interpretation takes away all of the threatening pathos, replaced with a subdued lament in an elevated mood.
Posel 'The Messenger' or 'The Envoy' 1831. A dumka more suited to be hummed than to be sung in full voice. This 'aftermath of a battle' landscape is sketched with but a few lines and expressed by the naive simplicity of folk style. The narration is conducted in a cracovienne-like rhythm, with modal phrases describing the situation. Chopin wanted this song to be sung in peasant fashion, yet not merrily.
Pierscien 'The Ring' 1831. A romanza-like song. It tells the story of a ring given to a girl in vain, for she married another. The narration rocks with a melancholy rhythm (G minor) of a kujawiak. The piano ritornello brings—ironically—a merry (wedding?) tune, expressed with the easy gestures of an oberek (E flat major). Chopin wrote this song into the album of Maria Wodzinska, to whom he had just become betrothed, on 8 September 1836.
Narzeczony 'The Bridegroom'; also known as 'The Betrothed' or 'The Return Home' 1831. One of the three songs in the tone of a folk ballad—disquieting, poignant, surreal. The text tells of returning from the war and finding the beloved on her deathbed. And of the faith that when she hears the cries and the calling of her sweetheart she might yet rise from her coffin, and start to live anew. The singing is in the simplest rhythms of a Ukrainian kolomyika; the function of creating the mood and of onomatopoeia is entrusted by the composer to the piano.
Smutna rzeka 'The Sad River'; also known as 'The Sad Stream' or 'Troubled Waters' 1831. The tragic and mysterious plot slowly emerges from the dialogue of a wanderer with a river. One can only guess that it alludes to echoes of war in the world of the Southern Slavs. The gloomy, modally-archaised melody of this lament seems to anticipate songs by Brahms in its depth and quality.
Dumka also known as 'Reverie' c1840. This is an earlier, simpler version of Nie ma czego trzeba. (See below.)
Dwojaki koniec 'Death's Divisions'; also known as 'The Double End', 'The Twofold End' or 'The Two Corpses' 1845. Another ballad from folk tradition, this time from the Ukraine. The saddest imaginable story of two lovers, a Cossack and his girl—or, more correctly, of their different deaths—was entrusted by Chopin to a melody reminiscent of Slavic religious laments. No frills: an absolute simplicity and purity of style.
Nie ma czego trzeba 'Faded and vanished' or 'I want what I have not'; also known as 'Melancholy' or 'Lack of light' 1845. The melody of this modally-archaised dumka goes on 'lento con gran espressione', reminding one of a bard’s song, accompanied by strokes of the lyre or lute. This is a lyrical lament of a wanderer far from his homeland: 'All that I long for is faded and gone. There is no one to love, there is no one to sing to'. Chopin had already tried to give the same words a melody—much more simple and common—five years earlier. It was published as 'Dumka' in 1910 (see above).
Melodia 'Elegy', or 'Lamento' Chopin's final song. He wrote it into the now-lost album of Delfina Potocka, signing it, in a quote from Dante, 'nella miseria': 'Nothing is sadder (than to reminisce happy moments in an unhappy one).' The poet's text itself carried a tragic message. It used images and language of the Bible to render doubt in the possibility of the rebels' generation to live to see their country free. Chopin followed the poet’s text, broadening it with meaningful repetitions.
One may wonder, or welcome, or protest: the solo-song repertoire left by Romanticism includes a particular group of ‘songs’ associated with Frédéric Chopin’s name yet not composed by him at all—as songs. In the 1840s the great Spanish singer Pauline Viardot (1821– 1910)—a friend of Chopin, who helped her improve her pianistic skills—had the idea to enrich her vocal repertoire with his works. Instead of turning to his existing Polish songs, however, she decided to take on his piano works, his mazurkas. She commissioned a second-rate French poet, Louis Pomey, to write the lyrics, and she ornamented her selection of the mazurkas with a series of typically vocal fioriture and cadenzas. The texts proved to be a banal aggregate of poetic clichés. As proven recently by C Schuster (1989), Mme Viardot used equally common vocal cadences of the ‘singing schools’ of the time. And yet her ploy worked and was greeted with much applause as highly in agreement with the spirit of the epoch.
It is difficult to know now if Chopin was happy with her transcriptions. He at least maintained a well-mannered neutrality: ‘And yesterday, at a concert in Covent Garden, Mme Viardot sang my mazurkas and was made to encore,’ he reported from London to Wojciech Grzymalá quite curtly (15 May 1848). Two months later he informed his friend again: ‘Yesterday (7 juillet), I gave a second matinée at Lord Falmouth’s hotel. Mme Viardot sang my mazurkas for me … I’m going to thank her right now.’
Pauline Viardot decided to publish her transcriptions; she did so, however, after Chopin’s death. In 1864 she published the collection with E H Gérard, Paris, giving it the title ‘Six Mazourkas de F Chopin [avec] paroles de Louis Pomey, arrangées pour la voix par Mme Pauline Viardot’. It included vocal versions of Mazurkas Op 50 No 2 (‘Seize ans’), Op 33 No 3 (‘Aime-moi’), Op 6 No 1 (‘Plainte d’amour’), Op 7 No 1 (‘Coquette’), Op 68 No 2 (‘L’oiselet’) and Op 24 No 1 (‘Séparation’). The success of the first edition triggered a repetition of the venture. Around 1888, J A Hamelle published six more of her transcriptions: Mazurkas Op 6 No 4 (‘La Fête’), Op 7 No 3 (‘Faible cœur’), Op 24 No 2 (‘La jeune fille’). Op 33 No 3 (‘Berceuse’), Op 50 No 1 (‘La Danse’) and Op 67 No 1 (‘La Beauté’). This recording includes five of these vocal transcriptions.
Pauline Viardot’s transcriptions became highly popular. They were published in many countries—including Poland, with Polish texts. A Chopin monographer, M A Szulc (1873), recalls Viardot’s concert in Warsaw, where she also sang several of her mazurka transcriptions. It seems that her performance ‘brought the audience to an enthusiasm unheard of in the history of concerts.’
Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski © 1999