Piano Literature Corner (1/2023 revisions)
Welcome to the University of Michigan Piano Literature Corner, curated by Associate Professor Matthew Bengtson. These materials are intended both for SMTD use and as public educational outreach. We hope they will be of interest to both students and teachers, and to amateurs and professionals alike. Various projects for this website continue to be developed, including presentations on Beethoven, Scriabin, Bartók, the 20th century mazurka, and various other topics.
Professor Bengtson’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Series entitled “Exploring Piano Literature: the Piano Sonata” is available on Coursera.
Funding to support the creation of these materials has been provided by an SMTD Block Grant, the CRLT Instructional Development Fund (IDF), and the Robert Glasgow Keyboard Faculty & Keyboard Caretakers Fund.
Frédéric Chopin - Mazurkas
Solo recital programs of the world’s most renowned pianists frequently used to offer mazurkas, especially Chopin’s mazurkas, as standard fare. However, these wonderful works are rarely performed nowadays. The mazurka tends to be considered one of the most elusive of genres to understand, and a difficult one to perform idiomatically. The entire genre seems to have been shrouded in a cloak of mystery. There is a long-standing myth that one needs to be born Polish to be capable of feeling the natural flow of the rhythm of a mazurka, or of understanding its deeper psychological meaning.
The video conversations in this section will consider the mazurka genre from the standpoint of its folk and dance origins, while considering the significance of Polish nationalism. They will show that mazurkas were not always better understood in their own time than they are now. A selection of recorded performances by UM faculty will suggest that these works remain vibrant recital repertoire for the audiences of today.
We hope these materials will help to demystify the mazurka, and to encourage more pianists to take them on. Thanks to Associate Professor and Chair Christian Matijas Mecca and Slavka Jelinkova from the Department of Dance and to Professor Arthur Greene of the Department of Piano for their insights, research, and collaboration in this project.
Quotes about Mazurkas
Mazurka Dance Cultures and their Evolution:
“The men grasped the long dress of their partner so it would not be trodden upon and lifted it high. Holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover as closely as possible against them and in this way the whirling continued in the most indecent positions. The supporting hand lay firmly on the breasts, at each movement making lustful pressures. The girls went wild and looked as though they would drop.”
Ernst Moritz Arndt, Die Ewigkeit des Volkes (Jena: Eugen Diederichs, 1934), 32, quoted in Oxford Music Online, “Waltz,” accessed June 3, 2020.
Mazurka Folk Sources:
“Even the oldest sources show us that it was extremely difficult to differentiate between the Mazur and its relatives, the Oberek and Kujawiak. The same melody that is played in 2/4 time in one provide on Poland may be played in 3/4 time in another.”
Tadeusz Strumiłło, cited in Gorbaty, Jan, Chopin Journal 1/1 (1986), accessed June 30, 2020.
Mazurkas and Polish Nationalism:
“If the mighty autocrat of the north knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in the simple tunes of Chopin mazurkas, he would forbid this music.”
Robert Schumann, in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 4 (1836): 137-39, trans. J. Kallberg in Kallberg, Jeffrey, “Hearing Poland: Chopin and Nationalism” in R. Larry Todd, ed., Nineteenth-Century Piano Music (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Mazurkas final thoughts: Performing in the Moment
“The mazurka is full of contrasts. It combines the fiery spirit with pride and elegance, vivacity with lyricism, dignity with joy, boldness with gallantry, dialogue between the man and the woman.”
Ada Dziewanowska, Polish Folk Dances and Songs: a Step-by-step Guide (Hippocrene Books, 1997). (517)
Mazurkas: An Introduction in Quotations:
“Ear-splitting dissonances, tortured transitions, piercing modulations, and repugnant distortions of the melodic line and rhythm.”
Ludwig Rellstab. Iris im Gebiete der Tonkunst 4 (1833): 111.
“His character was indeed not easily understood. A thousand subtle shades, mingling, crossing, contradicting and disguising each other, rendered it almost indecipherable at a first view. As is usually the case with Slavs, it was difficult to read the recesses of his mind. With them, loyalty and candor, familiarity, and the most captivating ease of manner by no means imply confidence or impulsive frankness. Like the twisted folds of a serpent rolled upon itself, their feelings are half-hidden, half-revealed. It required a most attentive examination to follow the coiled linking of the glittering rings.”
Liszt, Franz. The Life of Chopin. Luton: Andrews UK Ltd. 2011, 19. Pro Quest Ebook Central, accessed June 3, 2020.
“The Polish word, ‘Żal.’ As if his ear thirsted for the sound of this word, which expresses the whole range of emotions produced by an intense regret, through all the shades of feeling from hatred to repentance, he repeated it again and again. Susceptible of different regimens, it includes all the tenderness, all the humility of a regret borne with resignation and without a murmur, while bowing before the fiat of necessity, the inscrutable decrees of Providence, but, changing its character, and assuming the regimen indirect as soon as it is addressed to man, it signifies excitement, agitation, rancor, revolt full of reproach, premeditated vengeance, menace never ceasing to threaten if retaliation should ever become possible, feeding itself meanwhile with a bitter, if sterile, hatred.”
Liszt, The Life of Chopin, 61-62.
“Instinctively all the women in Poland possess the magic knowledge of this dance. Even the least happily endowed can find their improvised allurements.”
Liszt, The Life of Chopin, 50.
“They are epigrammatic, fluctuating, crazy, and tender, these Mazurkas, and some of them have a soft, melancholy light, as if shining through alabaster – true corpse light, leading to a morass of doubt and terror. But a fantastic, disheveled, debonair spirit is the guide, and to him we abandon ourselves in these precise and vertiginous dances.”
James Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music, 210. New York: Dover, 1966.
Preludes of Debussy
Among composers of solo piano music, there are none more cross-disciplinary or contextually rich than Claude Debussy (1862-1918). English-speaking performers and listeners can make their experience of this music much more vivid by studying the literature on this subject, especially by Roy Howat, Paul Roberts, Jane Fulcher, Catherine Kautsky, and Leon Botstein, and also by Marguerite Long in translation.
This section of the website presents insights gleaned from these authors in the form of pre-concert talks and performances held in the centennial year 2018. They are presented in coordination with a variety of visuals that can help to illustrate Debussy’s imaginative world. We hope they will bring you a fuller understanding of this extraordinary repertoire, which forms one of the most important stylistic foundations of music in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was not just a giant of Polish music, but one of the most impressive composers of his era, one of the richest in the whole history of music. Nevertheless, his piano works remain quite little-known to music lovers. Together with the video “Karol Szymanowski and the Rebirth of the Piano Mazurka,” this video will serve as a broad introduction to this repertoire, to Szymanowski’s rapidly-evolving style, and to the wide range of cultural inspirations behind his creations.
This project was made possible by an SMTD Block Grant and a Faculty Research Grant.
Karol Szymanowski’s 22 splendid mazurkas are among the essential works written in the genre. These short pieces also represent an ideal entry point for music lovers who wish to play Szymanowski’s music, or who simply want to listen and get to know his style. Please see also the videos on Chopin’s mazurkas and “An Introduction to the Piano Works of Karol Szymanowski,” also on the Piano Literature Corner.
George Theophilus Walker (1922-2018) was among the most important trailblazers among African-American musicians of the twentieth century. At a time when blacks were not represented on concert stages as either performers or composers, Walker excelled in both fields, earning international management as a pianist and carving out a successful career as a composer that culminated in a Pulitzer Prize. Walker’s career is a model of excellence worthy of the aspiration of musicians of any race, gender, or creed.
Walker’s five piano sonatas, which range from the 1950s to 2003, rank among the important works in the genre during that period. They form an excellent introduction to this composer’s musical world.
This project was supported by a grant from the SMTD Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.