Chopin’s Ballades: Which Would You Choose?

At my recent piano lesson, my teacher suggested I set Chopin’s Etude Opus 10, No. 3 aside for a few months and turn my attention to “one of the bigger works, perhaps a Scherzo or a Ballade?”. Eighteen months ago, not long after I started having lessons again, I would have said “Oh, I’m not sure I am up to it”, and my teacher would have had to bolster my confidence sufficiently for me to actually open the manuscript. This time, I replied, most emphatically, that I would love to learn at least one of the Ballades. In fact, I heard the third and fourth Ballades at the Chopin evening at the Wigmore last Sunday and was struck, not for the first time, at how beautiful and varied they are.

“Learn the first or the third, for sure!” Sylvia said over pre-concert drinks at Tuesday’s concert. The first was in my head already, as I’d been listening to it on my iPod. “I just love the ‘ticking clock’ in the third.”

They are all wonderful, and looking through my just-received Dover edition of the Ballades, Impromptus and Sonatas, it occurred to me, yet again, how lucky we pianists are: to have so much repertoire to choose from. Every taste and ability is catered for. One could spend a lifetime only learning Chopin’s music and still one would not have time to tackle his entire ouevre.

“Too much fodder, not enough time!” is one of my oft-repeated laments, as I consider all the music I want to learn. My obsession with Chopin continues, but I love Schubert too, and Beethoven. Oh, and while we’re about it, I love Mozart, especially his later piano music. And Haydn. Then there’s the Bach Italian Suite I heard on Radio Three the other morning and thought “Ooh, I fancy that too!”. This time last year I was “into” the English Romantics – Delius, Ireland, Bridge. Before that, it was Albeniz, his exotic melodies reminding me of holidays in Andalucia. I am always hearing things on the radio, looking them up and thinking, “I’ll have a look at that next”. This is how I came to learn Chopin’s Etude Opus 25 No. 7, a deeply melancholic work, and my first ever Chopin Etude. By beginning a study of the Etudes, I felt I was striding with giants, for to me, and, I suspect, most serious pianists, the Etudes represent the high Himalayan peaks of the classical piano repertoire. With two now learnt (kinda), it has given me the confidence to tackle some of Chopin’s bigger works. One day I might even learn a Sonata…..

Selecting an appropriate programme for my Performance Diploma could be a nightmare, as I have such varied tastes at present. But that is one of the great pleasures of studying for the Diploma: the opportunity to study repertoire I might have otherwise ignored.

My students are equally spoilt for choice, though they do not realise it yet. At the beginner and early intermediate level, there is a wealth of music, not just “standards” such as easy-peasy Bach, Haydn, Dussek, but reductions of famous works (two of my students played a simplified version of ‘l’Autunno’ from the Four Seasons by Vivaldi for Grade 1 – an imaginative and enjoyable piece), plus huge amounts of newly-written music. One of the most popular pieces I have taught in the last year is John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’, a joyful piece in F major, with a relaxed township lilt and echoes of jazz in its harmonies and syncopation. I try to select music that will suit the individual personalities of my students: most of the boys want to do jazzy, fast, loud pieces or theme tunes like ‘Indiana Jones’ or ‘The Great Escape’, but sometimes, doing something like Bartok’s ‘Former Friends’ can be a good lesson in thoughtful, careful playing. Then there is Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. I have taught the Andantino from this suite to about five students, adults and children, and they are all hooked by it. It is easy under the fingers, requiring no hand jumps nor tricky fingerings, but it sounds “different”, with some interesting “crunchy” harmonies. It’s pretty and quirky, and a great introduction to twentieth-century repertoire.

Going back to the Ballades, I sight-read through the first Ballade yesterday, and skimmed through the other three. It’s definitely the No. 1 for me, with its rather stately opening achieved through the use of a Neapolitan chord, and questioning harmonies at the end of the introduction, not fully resolved until later in the piece. It has one of the most memorable melodies (the second theme, introduced at bar 68), and is a work full of contrasting textures and moods. Played badly, it can sound self-indulgent and egotistical. Played well, it spoils the senses, “pure music” in its finest form, allowing both listener and player to form their own personal narrative as the music unfolds.

So, which would you choose?