McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium


FREDERIC CHOPIN'S MAZURKA IN

A MINOR Op. 17, No. 4:

A New Critical Perspective with Reference to

Heinrich Schenker's and Rudolf Réti's Analytic Methods

 

Shaninun F. Pittman

 
 
Frederic Chopin became Poland's musical ambassador to Paris during the nineteenth-century, incorporating many "exotic" idioms from his native land into his Parisian-inspired piano compositions. His distinct methods of developing a musical work have also been influenced by literary narratives and poetic ideals of the era. Reigning Parisian virtuosos (i.e. Gottschalk, Liszt, Thalberg and of course, Chopin) were motivated by the willingness of the bourgeoisie to embrace their national identities. Above all, there was a generally high expectation placed upon composers to be individuals.

For the purpose of this article, I wish to substantiate specific details concerning the overall form of Chopin's Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4.  I also wish to perform an analysis of the piece drawing upon two distinct analytic approaches:  Heinrich Schenker's method of analysis and Rudolph Réti's method of motivic development.  I intentionally avoid discussion of the first four measures of the piece. This is not to conclude, however, that the ambiguity Chopin creates simply by prefacing the piece with such a mysterious non-tonic opening is not worthy of later discussion.
 
A SECTION:  FORMAL STRUCTURE

Generally speaking, the overall form of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4 is ternary, comprising three large sections: (1.) an A section, (2.) a B section with contrasting material and (3.) a final A` section which I indicate on the chart below:

Figure 1. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 1-132, Ternary form
 

A

B

A`

mm. 1-60

mm. 61-92

mm 93-132

 
This basic ABA form can be divided into smaller forms, each differing depending upon the cadence quality of a particular phrase. For example, Chopin begins m. 5 on a ii4/2 chord, avoiding immediate resolution to the a-minor tonic. Note also that the seventh of the ii4/2 chord (the a) resolves to the g in m. 7. Chopin then proceeds through a series of progressions which later arrive at a V-i authentic cadence (see mm. 12-13).  Here the key of a-minor is finally established:

Figure 2. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm 5-13.

 

In Figure 3, I refer to the above excerpt as phrase [a].

Figure 3. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm 5-13
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 5-13

m. 5

mm. 12-13

[a]

ii4/2

V-i

 

 

Authentic Cadence

Measure 13 introduces new melodic content. The eight measure phrase structure continues through to mm. 19-20 where Chopin employs a perfect authentic cadence (V-i):

Figure 4. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm 13-20

 
On the chart below, I label these eight measures as phrase [b]:

Figure 5. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm 13-20
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 13-20

m. 13

mm. 19-20

[b]

ii4/2

V-i

 

 

Perfect Authentic Cadence

 
In m. 21, Chopin returns to the same material used in phrase [a] (Figure 2, mm. 5-13). The melodic content in Figure 6 below is a slight variation of phrase [a]. Notice that the chromatic descending bass line remains unaltered while the embellished melody in the treble undergoes subtle rhythmic changes (mm. 21-29). Note also the V-i authentic cadence employed in mm. 28-29:

Figure 6. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm 21-29
 

Below, I have labeled the above eight measures as phrase [a`]:

Figure 7. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 21-29
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase 

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 21-29

m. 21

mm. 28-29

[a`]

ii4/2

V-i

 

 

Authentic Cadence

 
Measure 29 begins yet another phrase, this time a variation of phrase [b] (Figures 4 and 5, mm.13-20). Again, the bass remains virtually unaltered while the embellished melody in the treble undergoes rhythmic changes. The eight-measure phrase ends with a perfect authentic cadence (Figure 8).  This is phrase [b'] as indicated in Figure 9.

Figure 8. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 29-36
 

 

Figure 9. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 29-36

m. 29

mm. 35-36

[b`]

i

V-i

 

 

Perfect Authentic Cadence

 
Chopin introduces new contrasting material in the key of E major (see Figure 10, mm. 36-44). Also note the cadence at mm. 43-44. This is followed by Figure 11 indicating the overall melodic content of [c].
 
Figure 10. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 36-44

Figure 11.  CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 36-44

m. 36

mm. 43 & 44

[c]

V

V

 

 

Half Cadence

 
At the a tempo (m. 45), Chopin returns to the melodic material used for phrases [a] (Figure 2, mm. 5-13) and [a`] (Figure 6, mm. 21-29).  Once more, Chopin varies the melody's rhythm without altering the chromatic descending bass line thereby concluding mm. 52-53 with a V-i authentic cadence:

Figure 12. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 45-53
 

 
Figure 13 below
indicates the melodic content of the phrase above. I label this [a``]:

Figure 13. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase Structure

Phrase Begins @

Cadences @

mm. 45-53

m. 45

mm. 52-53

[a``]

ii4/2

V-i

 

 

Authentic Cadence

 
Measure 53 is another variation based on melodic material from [b] (Figure 4, mm. 13-20) and [b`] (Figure 9, mm. 29-36). Once again, the bass contents remain unaltered. Chopin concludes this phrase with a V-i perfect authentic cadence (Figure 14):

Figure 14. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 53-60
 

The eight measure phrase above is labeled [b``] as shown on the graph below:

Figure 15. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4
 

 

A section: mm. 1-60

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 53-60

m. 53

mm. 59-60

[b``]

i

V-I

 

 

Perfect Authentic Cadence

The beginning A section consists of three periods: the first combines [a] and [b], the second [a`] and [b`], and the third [a``] and [b``]. Each combination contains two phrases in which the first cadence is weaker than the second. Figure 16 shows the overall structure of the beginning A section:

Figure 16. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4
 

 

THE "B-C-D" SUBJECT: BRAIDING PHRASES IN THE A-SECTION

I would like to reiterate that phrases [a], [b], [a`],[b`],[a``] and [b``] all have exactly the same bass progression throughout both A sections.  This fundamental bass line not only supports the melodies above it , but also has a scalar function.  Notice the a at m. 5, the seventh of the chord b-d-f-(a), as it begins its decent through a series of chromatic passing tones to the e in m. 11.   The final resolution to A-minor occurs in m.13 where the a functions as the tonic: both Schenker and Réti would agree about this function (see Figure 17):

Figure 17: CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Bass line

The subject introduced in mm. 1-3 consists of three principle notes: b,c, and d, with c functioning as a passing note.   The repetition of the b-c-d subject is certainly no mistake, for it becomes prominent throughout A and in the following B and A’ sections.

One may be inclined to ask: what is Chopin really doing in the opening four measures and how does this connect to phrase structure [a] of the large A section?  The a at m. 5 emerges out of the non-tonic opening and is in essence a prolongation of the subject introduced in mm. 1-3.  Schenkarian and Rétian views reveal that the seventh of the chord b c d  (a) is used to invoke the feeling of A-minor (although Chopin does not establish the key until m.13).  Chopin is able to connect the ambiguous non-tonic opening to the following phrase.

Though Schenker and Réti would agree to the fact that Chopin is creating musical coherence, they would disagree with how mm.5-13 (Figure 18 below) functions as a coherent phrase.  From a Schenkerian view, the b on the first beat of m. 5 moves through to the d.  Similarly, the a on the third beat of m. 5 moves through to the c and the pattern is repeated once more with a return to pitch b through to the d in m.7.  On the other hand, a Rétian view reveals that Chopin develops this phrase and others like it, by incorporating the b c d subject from the non-tonic opening a minimum of six times (see Figure 19). This subject also takes the form of the b-c-d retrograde: d-c-b.  Also note how the subject overlaps in the Réti example.  Below, I have graphed this passage from both Schenker’s and Réti’s analytic methods:

Figure 18: CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4,  Schenker Graph

Figure 19: CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Réti Graph


 
Below, I have further analyzed the melodic content of phrase [c].  Figure 20 shows a Schenkerian view and Figure 21 applies a Rétian view. Note the vast differences between both approaches especially in terms of how the treble part is conceived:

Figure 20. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Schenker Graph

Figure 21: CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Réti Graph

Both Schenker and Réti would probably agree on the dominant (V) function of the bass part.  More interesting, however, are their conflicting views about how the melodic material functions as a device to unify the phrase.  I must admit that the Rétian graph is much more convincing and more detailed than Schenker’s (at least from the information I have felt important to include in the graphs above).  It is clear that for Schenker, the movement from e to d and back to e is pivotal to the overall harmonic schema (see mm. 36-43 in Figure 20 above).  Nevertheless, a Rétian view reveals that this movement from e to d and back to e is dependent upon the b c d subject and d c b retrograde interlaced between the triplets (see mm. 36-43 in Figure 21 above).  Clearly, this triple figure is not a new idea.  Chopin simply borrows the unassuming motive from the triplet in m. 4 of the non-tonic opening:

Figure 22. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, mm. 1-4
 

Hopefully we concur from this simple application of Schenkarian and Rétian analysis that Chopin develops the A section by using both harmonic and motivic devices.  This style of developing a musical work is consistent throughout the mazurka as I will highlight in the following section.  The important question at the moment deals with the form of section B, and its relationship to section A.

B SECTION:  FORMAL STRUCTURE
 
Section B introduces new material in the key of A major. Like the large A section, it can be divided into smaller entities. The first consists of an eight measures phrase ending on a I-V Half cadence (mm. 67-68 Figure 23).  This is phrase [a] (Figure 24):

Figure 23. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4. mm. 61-68
 

 

Figure 24. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4
 

 

B section: mm. 61-68

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Cadences at

mm. 61-68

m. 61

mm. 67-68

[a]

I

I-V

 

 

Half Cadence

Measure 69-76 comprises the next phrase which is a variation of phrase [a].

Figure 25. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, mm. 69-76
 

The supporting bass line remains the same as the bass line in [a], and the melody undergoes subtle pitch and rhythmic changes.  I consider this phrase [a`] as shown in Figure 26.  Rather than bring this phrase to a complete cadence, Chopin creates an elision whereby the ending of the phrase (mm. 75-76) actually becomes the beginning of another phrase:

Figure 26. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4
 

 

B section: mm. 69-76

 

Phrase

Phrase Begins at

Elision at

mm. 69-76

m. 69

mm. 75-76

[a`]

I

I-V/V

 

 

 

The next phrase, beginning at m. 77 (Figure 27), is an exact repeat of [a] (see Figures 23 and 25). It is followed by eight measures of melodic material. The last two measures (91 and 92) function as a short transition to the final A` section.  This transition does not cadence, but elides or "melts into" the next phrase (mm.76-77).  Again, the effect of this is an elision:

Figure 27. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, mm. 77-93
 

In Figure 28, the overall structure of the B section is given. Chopin seems to treat this section as a set of variations. The entire section contains four phrases with equal cadences:

Figure 28. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4


 
 

ON THE "B-C-D" SUBJECT IN THE B SECTION:  DISTURBING THE MELODIC CONTOUR THROUGH OVERLAP

Beyond the fact that this B section is built upon a repetition of one phrase, the [a] phrase, a number of striking features occur beneath the surface of this section.  The element that is most striking is the fact that the B section is often said to be in a contrasting key with contrasting material.  Obviously, Chopin is writing in a new key which is a not what I wish to dispute.  I am not wholly certain that the material presented is "new” material:  notice how the b-c-d subject from the non-tonic opening of the A section returns in the B, an occurrence which is more apparent in Réti's graph (see Figures 29 and 30):

Figure 29. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Schenker Graph

Figure 30: CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Réti Graph

Both Schenker and Réti would agree on the harmonic and motivic activity occurring in mm. 66-68. The b-c-d subject is stated in m. 66 and restated in a prolongation to the b pitch in m. 68.  Both theories, however, diverge in their views of the harmonic and melodic progression of mm. 61-64. A Rétian approach reveals that the b c d subject occurs as least three times within mm. 62-64 (see Figure 30 above).  Réti's view further reveals that the b c d subject, although hidden beneath the surface, can be seen overlapping its d c b retrograde.  Schenker, of course, does not reveal such an interweaving of parts, but rather focuses on the grand schema of the melodic line and harmonic progression (See Figure 29 above).  Schenker would disagree with Réti because a phrase developed in this fashion would loose its coherency through this “overlapping” effect.

A' SECTION: FORMAL STRUCTURE

The final A` section begins at measure 93 where Chopin employs phrase [a] from the beginning A section. The same is applicable to the phrase following in mm. 101-108 (see Figure 29). Chopin takes phrase structure [b] from the beginning A section and uses it in this final A` section.

Figure 31. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, mm. 93-101
 

 
Figure 32.
CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, mm. 101-108
 

 
New contrasting material is introduced in mm. 108-128 which is the Coda.  This section consists of two phrases. The first (mm. 108-116) ends on a iio2 (half-diminished)-i. The second phrase is essentially a repeat of the first as it too cadences at iio2 (half-diminished)-i (mm. 123-124). The four measures that follow prolong the A-minor tonic (see Figure 33).  The coda works to establish the key of A minor.  This is how Chopin justifies the return to a non-tonic closing.

Figure 33. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, mm. 108-128.
 

 
The whole of the A` section consists of two periods and one phrase group. Figure 34 shows the overall structure of the final A` section:

Figure 34. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4, chart of the A` section
 

 

A` Section: mm. 93-132

 

Phrase [a]

Phrase [b]

Phrase [c]-the coda

mm. 93-101

mm. 101-108

mm. 108-116

V-i 

Authentic Cadence 

V-i 

Perfect Authentic Cadence

iio2 (half-diminished)-i mm. 115-116 

iio2 (half-diminished)-i mm. 123-124

P             e                r 

     i                o                d

Phrase Group

 

THE CODA:  SOLIDIFYING A MINOR

I would like to draw special attention to the very interesting coda which Chopin employs before he returns to the final non-tonic closing (see Figures 35 and 36):

Figure 35. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Schenker Graph

Figure 36. CHOPIN, Mazurka in A minor Op. 17. No.4, Réti Graph

From both Schenker’s and Réti’s view the coda consists of three ideas.  The first is the scalar decent from the E in m. 116 to the A in m. 123.  The second is the repeat to the A pitch in the bass, and the third is the highly chromatic, but systematic method of voice-leading in between the scalar decent in the treble and A in the bass.  Both Schenker and Réti would agree that both phrases in the code progress as follows: i - viio7/V -- G+65-Common Tone diminished seventh -- G+65 -- CTo7 -- i.

This Schenkarian and Rétian approach to the mazurka has convinced me that Chopin strategically planned the harmonic and melodic schema of the piece.  I am partial to Réti's approach, however, in that I believe Chopin depended more upon the b-c-d subject to unify the entire piece.  Surprisingly, I was not as enlightened by the information I received from the Schenker graphs.  Perhaps, too, my limited vocabulary has hindered me from conducting a closer reading.  The same would also apply to the "quasi Rétian" approach I take.

I am, nevertheless, struck by the overlapping, interweaving, and "braiding" effects that are embedded within the underlying structure of the A B and A' sections.  I conclude that it is because of these motions that Chopin is to be regarded as a literary poet -- not because the themes in the Mazurka have programmatic tendencies, but because the uniqueness of the Mazurka in A minor Op. 17, No. 4 makes the work a hallmark of nineteenth century romanticism.
 
 

© Copyright 1999 by Shaninun Pittman.