"A thousand nuances of movement" : the intersection of gesture, narrative, and temporality in selected mazurkas of Chopin



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It is no secret that Frédéric Chopin was fond of dance music. Dance genres—including the mazurka, polonaise, and waltz—dominate his oeuvre. According to the Henle Urtext edition, Chopin penned fifty-seven mazurkas during his lifetime, writing in this genre more than any other. It is interesting, then, that the mazurkas seem to be one of Chopin’s most historically misunderstood genres. In their haste to point out the mazurkas’ seeming irregularities of rhythm, harmony, mode, accent pattern, and such, critics both of Chopin’s time and in more recent history often ignore two equally fundamental issues: (1) the relationship between Chopin’s mazurkas and the dance of the same name, and (2) the manner in which that relationship might inform hermeneutic readings of the mazurkas. Surely, the perceived “irregularities” were not employed haphazardly, but rather for specific expressive purposes.

This essay aims to construct a model for embodied musical meaning as it pertains to Chopin’s mazurkas by examining the intersection of gesture, narrative, and temporal theories. Drawing on Robert S. Hatten’s (2004) and Alexandra Pierce’s (2007) work on musical gesture, I will relate the steps of the danced mazurka to their abstract musical counterparts in Chopin’s solo piano works and examine the affective connection between the physical steps and the musical gestures. I will then call upon the narrative theories of Michael Klein (2004) and Byron Almén (2008) and the temporal theories put forth by Jonathan D. Kramer (1973, 1996) and Judy Lochhead (1979) to construct a framework in which the musical gestures (and the expressive states they imply) interact to produce emergent meanings. Finally, I will present a gestural/narrative reading of Chopin’s Mazurka in C# minor, op. 50, no. 3, which aims to demonstrate both the utility of my proposed theoretical model and the necessity of going back to the dance to grapple with issues of musical meaning in the mazurkas.