The third of Chopin’s four Ballades for the piano has been called “probably the only 19th century ballade with a happy ending (as well as being the only ballade of Chopin’s that ends on a major chord).”
But there’s quite a journey it takes before that happy resolution, both in the literary allusion to a tragic short story by Adam Mickiewicz, and in the technical challenge outlined by pianist Paul Cantrell in his excellent blog and podcast In The Hands:
In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.
Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.
What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.
Hear pianist Kay Zavislak play this brilliant Ballade No. 3 in a Chopin Project live performance at the University of Michigan’s Britton Recital Hall.
Read the Wikipedia entry on the Ballade No. 3 here.