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Frédéric Chopin

Chopin is credited with originating the Ballade genre for the piano. The Ballade had previously been associated exclusively with the literary world; it is found in the works of Goethe, Schiller, and other poets. In this Op. 23 effort, Chopin was said to have been inspired by the poem "Konrad Wallenrod" by Adam Mickiewicz. Mickiewicz, like Chopin and many other Polish artists, lived as an exile in Paris in the 1830s. Regardless of any programmatic comments associated with the Ballade No. 1, it is almost certainly not a depiction of specific events associated with this or any other Mickiewicz poem, but rather an expression of emotions associated with them.

The piece opens with a ponderous, somewhat hesitant introduction, and then the composer presents a melancholy theme that maintains the uncertain air of the opening. Gradually the tempo quickens, the emotional pitch turning fiery and passionate. Chopin then offers one of his most memorable melodies, a lovely, Romantic outpouring of rather simple, yet ingenious, construction: the theme revolves mainly around a three-note pattern, which sings and soars in its arch-like contour. The main theme returns briefly, but mostly to serve as a bridge; it builds up to a powerful statement of the alternate theme in one of Chopin's most passionate climactic moments in any of his works. The melody returns once again, now serene and confident in its demeanor. But a stormy and dark return of the main theme leads to a tragic and anxious ending, full of color and ambivalence. Without question, this is one of the composer's greatest compositions from his early Paris years. There would be three more Ballades, with perhaps only the Ballade No. 4, composed in 1842, equaling this first effort. Like many of Chopin's works, this First Ballade contains many technical and interpretive challenges for the soloist.

-- Robert Cummings, All Music Guide