In his book The Grotesque in Art and Literature, author Wolfgang Kayser writes, “Periods of spiritual crisis are known to develop an almost seismographic sensitivity for the grotesque.”
His Opus 44 is Chopin’s grotesque – and tragic Polonaise. Chopin had weathered more than his share of crises by the time he composed his two final polonaises — his greatest efforts in the form. While the “Heroic” of the pair feels like he’s banished misfortune, his “Tragic” Polonaise belies it; it’s filled with the “sensitivity for the grotesque” Kayser describes.
The outer sections of the polonaise recall the war-weary and unsettling Black Paintings from the later years of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya’s life, marked—like Chopin’s—by illness, personal and national tragedy. They are experimental, daring, blunt and bizarre.
Biographer James Huneker calls the piece “a confession from the dark depths of a self-tortured soul.” Franz Liszt perceived “the lurid hour that precedes a hurricane” with a “convulsive shudder at the close.”
Chopin rails angrily, but not relentlessly. Between the yowling, darkly-percussive sections that bookend the work he plants a curious bloom—one that has led to a fair amount of head-scratching. A student seeking advice online comments, “…the interpretation of [these measures] is killing me. I've never really heard anything like it before, nor has my teacher…the whole section just seems out of place.”
This lullaby-like moment is a tender mazurka and its insertion makes the Opus 44 Polonaise a hybrid of sorts: Is this nostalgia? A tender bouquet for his native Poland? It’s a welcome break from the battle, all too soon drowned out by Chopin’s resumed roar of defiance. - Jennifer Foster