Andante spianato

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Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 22

Fryderyk Chopin                                       
Born March 1, 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Died October 17, 1849 in Paris, France

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


The polonez, or in its French form, polonaise, is one of the five national dances of Poland along with the mazurka, krakowiak, oberek, and kajawiak. Its provenance begins with folk dances of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the pieszzy, wolny chmielowy, chodzony, and taniec polski), which fed different elements into the mature polonaise, as we know it today. Over the years, the dance shed its rustic folk origins, and was “appropriated” by the nobility, the aristocracy, the military, and royalty.  Therein, its character became more stately, elegant, ceremonial, and dramatic.

Eventually, the stirring music became separated from the dance, yielding popular, instrumental pieces. Russians and European composers feasted on the idea, and the original Polish dance moved into a cosmopolitan, international destiny. Composers such as Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Liadov, Mussorgsky, Liszt, Chabrier, Beethoven, Weber and even the American composer Sousa, for example, wrote polonaises as independent pieces, in operas, or borrowed polonaise elements in their other works, often using the performance direction “alla polacca.”

The instrumental polonaise usually maintained its basic original features:  the rhythmic identity (eighth note, two sixteenths, four eighth notes) ¾ meter, moderate pace, but during the nineteenth century it grew in virtuosity, dynamics, coloration, emotional content and dimensions, especially in the presentation of extended, heavily decorated melodies. Gradually, it developed an ABA structural format. Credit for this transformation and the inclusion of a contrasting middle segment, has been ascribed to Michael Kleofas Oginski (1765–1833) who set this style in his famous romantic polonaise Farewell to the Homeland. Other Polish composers who participated in this legacy were Maria Szymanowska, Jozef Eisner, Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski and Karol Kurpinsiki. In their wake, these composers created the models, which Chopin heard as a child. Although he left Poland forever at age twenty, he loved his homeland, and wrote polonaises throughout his lifetime. (When he wrote his first little polonaise in G minor he was only seven years old.) Almost all of his polonaises were written for piano solo. These are grouped into Opus 3, 22, 26, 40, 44, 53, 61,71 (posthumous) and several additional posthumous polonaises published in 1879, 1902 and 1947.

In 1830–31 Chopin composed his Grand Polonaise for solo piano, and later set it into a work for piano and orchestra. Three years later in 1834, he appended an Andante spianato (smooth and flowing), as a bel canto style introduction to Opus 22. This combination was first heard in a benefit concert presented by Francois Antoine Habeneck in his Conservatoire Concerts in Paris on April 26, 1835, with Chopin as soloist.  

They were first published together in 1836.

The Grand Polonaise with piano and orchestra opens with a small stately introduction before the pianist leads the way into the polonaise proper. Notice the characteristic rhythmic underpinnings in the left hand while the right hand continually spins an elaborate melody and takes the limelight as the piece develops. After the brilliant beginning, the pianist moves into a restrained area in subdued dynamics but nonetheless splendidly virtuosic and kaleidoscopic. Elaborate trills, double notes, and thrilling arpeggios, leaping passages, long runs, all performed with utmost fluidity, demand high technical expertise as Opus 22 moves to its spectacular conclusion. Throughout the orchestra is kept at a minimum, totally in service to the pianist.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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