I’ve always thought that Chopin’s First Ballade told a story, though exactly what story I was never sure. For a long time, I imagined the opening – an arresting and bare arpeggio – as the door to a ballet studio crashing open and a dancer walking in in distress. The dancer was always in street clothes, as though bundled up for a New York City winter. She’d sit down to put on her shoes, and quietly remove her scarf and jacket before standing to step in her own time. The Ballade gets going, but slowly, like an idea forming; this for me was always the dancer getting in touch with her body, feeling out why she’d come to dance alone. As the piece progresses, it picks up speed and, eventually, erupts into chaos. Melodramatic teenage-me thought of this as the dancer working herself into a cathartic frenzy, releasing anger and exuberance in equal measure. Maybe you could say that the piece was about emotional liberation? Or maybe that was just a projection of my own psyche at the time…
I had the privilege of putting together the first episode of the tonic, tonebase’s new podcast, using the insights from a bunch of musicians who’ve thought deeply about the meaning within Chopin’s First Ballade. Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, Rebecca Penneys, Jerome Lowenthal, Seymour Bernstein, Gary Graffman – these are all musicians whose recordings I grew up listening to and revering, and here I was getting to listen to them describe the interpretive choices behind not just their own playing, but also other great players, like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz.
What these musicians taught me about storytelling in music is that much can be accomplished by listening closely – what is the music trying to say? If you listen closely, for example, you might notice that the opening to the First Ballade sounds like the opening to a Bellini art song. Chopin admired Bellini and opera; maybe the ballade requires a singing quality. Or you might focus on how bare the opening arpeggio is and think about Chopin’s love of improvising, how the opening can feel uncertain, or undecided. Or you might listen carefully and hear the famous dissonance near the end of the opening – a dissonance so unusual for its time that an early publisher thought Chopin just made a mistake. These details are all there waiting to be found and explored.
As we head into writing our next episode of the tonic, which will air next month, I’m so excited to keep learning from the musicians that tonebase has assembled, and to consider more carefully what story the music is capable of telling.