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Chopin's Tribute to His Homeland

Since Chopin’s birthday is March 1 (February 22 according to records, but he celebrated it as March 1), this article was written to honor his legacy on his birthday by analyzing the piece he attributed to his war-devastated homeland Poland. Chopin himself believed that this is the most beautiful melody he has ever written.

Frederick Chopin composing his preludes by Lionello Balestrieri
Frederick Chopin composing his preludes by Lionello Balestrieri (1)

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born in 1810 in Poland. He grew up there but left the country when he was 20 years old. The turmoil started shortly after he left. As the urge for independence increased, so did the outside pressures. Poland was suffering under the domination of the Holy Alliance consisting of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. This led to the Polish Uprisings and eventually Russia’s military invasion.

Shortly before that, Chopin left Poland and went to Vienna. He lived in Paris until his death in 1849, but always expressed his pain, love, and longing for his homeland through music. He composed Etude Op. 10 No. 3 during his exile. This piece is also referred to as "Tristesse" (Sadness) or “L'Adieu” (Farewell) after Chopin. These names were not given by him, but Etude Op. 10 No.3 can be interpreted as his way of saying ‘goodbye’ to his homeland. It has a ternary form; starts with an entrance section A, followed by the middle section B, and then ends with a repetition of section A. The piece starts with a calm and sorrowful opening, continues with contrasting rhythmic shifts, and goes back to the calm melody before it fades away.

Detail from A Day Dream by Sir Edward John Poynter
Detail from A Day Dream by Sir Edward John Poynter (2)

The first section of Etude Op. 10 No.3, section A, starts with a melancholic and gloomy entrance. The difference of section A lies in its cantabile (song-like) form and melodic structure. For this very same reason, many music historians and pianists think that this piece resembles Chopin’s Nocturnes rather than his other Etudes. However, in addition to its sentimental melody, section A carries the technical difficulties of an Etude as well. The polyphonic pattern involves various crescendo (a gradual increase of loudness) and decrescendo (a gradual decrease of loudness) and requires the right hand to play the main melody and accompaniment at the same time as the left hand continues steadily. In terms of musical experience, on the other hand, the most prominent feature of section A is its cantabile structure and melancholy. Recitative-like elements in Chopin’s non-dance compositions like Etude Op. 10 No. 3 represent national elements related to Polish culture (Bakst, 1962, p. 67). According to the sources, Chopin himself said “In all my life I have never again been able to find such a beautiful melody”. The nostalgic and gloomy atmosphere created by section A can be interpreted as a reflection of Chopin’s intense yearning for his homeland Poland and the time he spent there.

The most prominent feature of section B lies in its virtuosity and the techniques it involves, as opposed to section A. A smooth transition occurs at the 21st bar and gradually turns into irregular rhythmic shifts. The involvement of tritones (musical interval consisting of three whole tones), increases the intensity by creating harmonic dissonance. Due to the tension it creates, the use of tritone was strictly forbidden in the Middle Ages, and tritone was referred to as "Diabolus in Musica", meaning "The Devil in Music" (Čiurlionienė, 2019, p. 52). The occurrence of tritones in section B after a smooth transition part represents the erosion of hope by darkness and can be interpreted as expressing the horror of war in Russian-invaded Poland. It has been said that Chopin has cried out once, on hearing this piece played in his presence, "O ma patrie!", meaning "Oh, my homeland!" (Hofstadter, 1982, p. 188). This is a manifestation of Chopin’s pain and overwhelming despair for his devastated country.