On Wings and Wooden Shoes

Of Chopin’s 51 mazurka’s my favourite is Op. 24 Nr. 4. It starts with a broken octave F which shrinks in alternating semitone steps: two voices seeking to meet halfway, in a simpleminded, but musically weird and ambiguous pattern. If left to shuffle along the two would meet on the tritone B – the musical nowhere.

Just in time the bass steps in, hm-pa-pa, but gently, and starts to pull things straight. The contralto makes a step ahead of time, the soprano briefly freezes on the spot, then, swirling upward through four more hm-pa-pa’s, they settle for the key of B-flat minor. Jarring octaves; no soft melting in unison. Forward and backward, up and down, through mood swings huge as mountains.

In the second contrasting section (D-flat major) the contralto steps forward, con anima, chest-voiced, grandly gesturing, and plastered. She has only one point to make, but makes it many times. We know the refrain, and yet we want to hear her making it.

Ignacy Friedman highlights the aerial and earthy contrasts within this mazurka with abandon, not restrained by the minor details of the score. Delicate lingerings, dizzying accelerations; slight asynchronicities of left and right that make a soft plunge into the chord; and bumpy bass notes that knock you back into tempo. His second- and third-beat accents are realized by rhythmic manipulations rather than by force of touch: an irresistible elasticity affects both the smallest and the larger time scales.

A beat is not a beat: pattern takes precedence over measurement. Unless you’re a musical mechanic, you will keep counting 1-2-3 (hm-pa-pa) no matter what the pianist does – within uncertain bounds. (There are reports of contemporaries counting 4 while Chopin played his mazurka’s.)

I’ve projected the first four bars of the tipsy contralto’s solo onto the spectrogram of Friedman’s 1930 recording, stretching and shrinking the bar segments to fit his fluctuating beat lengths. Musical notation portrays temporal order in its horizontal and vertical dimensions, but not in detail or correct proportion (a piano roll does that). Showing a performer’s tempo rubato as a graphic transformation of the score is impossible in detail, but still the image is suggestive.

I made the spectrogram and beat markings with Sonic Visualiser, a wonderful free open source program. It does not allow you to insert a score into the analysis, but it does offer possibilites to produce exact data for the study of performances and performance styles. It has been an important tool in a British research project around the recorded performance tradition of Chopin’s mazurka’s.

Nicholas Cook, who has been director of this project, devotes a chapter to the mazurka style in his recent Beyond the Score (OUP 2013). Cook concludes (p. 173) that there may be “no reason to imagine there is a single essential criterion that defines the mazurka style, whether in terms of composition or of performance. […] But it is perhaps fair to say that the prototypical mazurka performance involves the creation through some kind of recurrent rubato pattern of surplus anacrustic energy, resulting in an unusually vivid sense of embodiment.”

It may be hard to dance the mazurka to Friedman’s playing, but no doubt it is impossible to comprehend his playing without such embodiment, without moving along in some hard-to-define mental-physical sense. The specific gestures and actions of piano playing also have a part in this, and a listener who cannot see or imagine the pianist’s actions might be less engaged. Much depends upon the ability to feel oneself in the performer’s place.