Fryderyk Chopin's Polonaise in Ab Major, op. 53, is widely known as the “Heroic.” It's tempting to dismiss this seemingly generic title, which was not Chopin's. But what can notions of a “heroic polonaise,” taken from nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century contexts, do for our current understanding of the piece? The appellation evokes a constellation of distinct cultural contexts, such as nostalgia, nationalism, Polish messianism, the medieval revival in the arts, and ideas of the artist as a prophetic hero. Not only do these contexts come together and interact in the then pervasive cultural narrative of Poland's fall and eventual rebirth, but they also color the mythicized reception accorded to Chopin and his music. Taken collectively, these contexts help to shape the amorphous concept of heroicness. So, I deploy topic theory and narratology in a close reading of the piece in order to reconcile these contexts with this polonaise's putative heroic qualities. As a topic, the polonaise takes the form of several types throughout the piece, each with its own affective connotations and temporal associations, and this fluidity of topical references muddles a straightforward apprehension of the piece's heroicness. Combining the topical dimension with an examination of the tonal and formal logic of the piece, I demonstrate how the piece might be re-interpreted in light of the previously mentioned narrative of Poland's fall and resurrection. Moreover, the piece's specificities interact with certain theoretical issues related to musical meaning, such as music's capacity to denote temporalities distinct from its unfolding. That said, my turn to the historical contexts for the piece's heroicness is meant to open up rather than to pin down musical meaning. A comparison between my interpretation and a nineteenth-century one by a Polish musician illustrates how the same interpretative framework yields diverse readings, while a survey of a few works of art that draw on op. 53, each with their own framing contexts, shows how op. 53's heroicness has been understood anew across time and cultures.
Heroic Narratives and Chopin's Polonaise in Ab Major, Op. 53
Cheng Wei Lim is a PhD candidate in music theory at Columbia University. While he maintains a keen interest in performing and studying the standard Western art music repertoire, he has also worked on early music and video game music.
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Cheng Wei Lim; Heroic Narratives and Chopin's Polonaise in Ab Major, Op. 53. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2022; 46 (2): 163–193. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2022.46.2.163
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