Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust. Act One, Scene One: Faust sits alone, bitter, despondent, reflecting on a life spent in a futile attempt to find the meaning of existence. He resolves to take his own life and is raising a vial of poison to his lips when …outside a joyous peasant chorus stops him.
When you listen to a moment right in the middle of one of Chopin’s most evocative Mazurkas, you hear unisons. Chopin used to fuss at his students over those brief bars. Wilhelm von Lenz writes:
“Nobody ever managed to satisfy him with these unisons, which have to be played very lightly; the chords were an easier matter: but these unisons! ‘They’re women’s voices in the choir,’ [Chopin] would say, and they were never played delicately enough, never simply enough. One was barely allowed to breathe over the keyboard, let alone touch it.”
This has to be a childhood memory. The Mazurka in B-flat minor is redolent with nostalgia from start to finish, and how it ends! If biographer James Huneker hears correctly, Faust’s impulse returns, only this time it’s the whole earth and the scene is set in a sorrowful heaven:
“Sweet melancholy driving before it joy and being routed itself, until the annunciation of the first theme and the dying away of the dance, dancers and the solid globe itself,” he writes, “…as if earth had committed suicide for loss of the sun. The last two bars could have been written only by Chopin. They are ineffable sighs.” – Jennifer Foster