The Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 is the first of Frédéric Chopin's four ballades. It was composed in 1835-36 during the composer's early days in Paris and is dedicated to Monsieur le Baron de Stockhausen, Hanoverian ambassador to France, and reportedly inspired by Adam Mickiewicz's poem Konrad Wallenrod. Chopin seemed to have been fond of the piece; in a letter to Heinrich Dorn, Robert Schumann commented that, "I received a new Ballade from Chopin. It seems to be a work closest to his genius (although not the most ingenious) and I told him that I like it best of all his compositions. After quite a lengthy silence he replied with emphasis, 'I am happy to hear this since I too like it most and hold it dearest.'"
The piece begins with a brief introduction which is thematically unrelated to the rest of the piece. It ends with a dissonant left hand chord D, G, and E-flat. Though Chopin's original manuscript clearly marks an E-flat as the top note, the chord has caused some degree of controversy, and thus, some versions of the work - such as the Klindworth edition - include D, G, D as an ossia. The main section of the ballade is built from two main themes. The brief introduction fades into the first theme, introduced at measure 7. After some elaboration, the second theme is introduced softly at measure 69. This theme is also elaborated on. Both themes then return in different keys, and the first theme finally returns again in the same key, albeit with an altered left hand accompaniment. A thundering chord introduces the coda, marked Presto con fuoco, which ends the piece. As a whole, the piece is structurally complex and not strictly confined to any particular form, but incorporates ideas from mainly the sonata and variation forms.
Technically, many passages of the ballade require rapid scales, very fast and large chords, octaves, and difficult fingerings. A distinguishing feature of the Ballade No. 1 is its time signature. While all the other ballades are written in strict compound duple time, with a 6/8 time signature, this ballade bears deviations from this. The introduction is written in 4/4 time, and the more extensive Presto con fuoco coda is written in 2/2. The rest of the piece is written in 6/4, rather than the 6/8 which characterizes the other ballades.
This ballade is one of the more popular Chopin pieces. It is prominently featured in the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist, where an approximately four-minute cut is played by Janusz Olejniczak. It is also played in the 1944 film Gaslight and heard in the 2006 satire Thank You for Smoking.
The Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38 is the second of Frédéric Chopin's four ballades for solo piano. It was composed from 1836 to 1839 in Nohant, France and on the Spanish island of Majorca. Robert Schumann, who had dedicated his Kreisleriana, Op. 16 to Chopin, received the dedication of this ballade in return. The piece has been criticized by prominent pianists and musicologists, including its dedicatee Schumann, as a less ingenious work than the first. There is some degree of disagreement on what inspired this ballade; the claim is often made that it was inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poem S'witezianka, the lake of Willis, but this claim is unsubstantiated, and the Ballade No. 3 is sometimes attributed to this poem as well.
As with the Ballades No. 3 and No. 4, the Ballade No. 2 is written in compound duple (6/8) time. It opens quietly on the dominant of the F major key, with repeated Cs in both the left and right hands. This quickly progresses to a melody and development with the performance instruction sotto voce - literally "under the voice", or "quietly". This section fades out with several repeated As in the right hand. The next section of the ballade, in stark contrast to the first, opens with the performance instruction Presto con fuoco – literally “very fast with fire”. It is in an unusual key for a secondary melody; instead of being in the relative minor of F major, it is instead in A minor. Chopin scholar and biographer Frederick Niecks writes of it, “The entrance of the presto... seems out of keeping with what precedes; but what we hear after... justifies the presence of the presto.”The piece shortly returns to its original tempo and style, and the first melody is further elaborated on. Here, Chopin incorporates variations on the melody not present in the initial expository stage of the piece. This development progresses until the Presto con fuoco theme is naturally reintroduced and recapitulated. This time, it is elaborated on as well, and ends abruptly, with a prolonged rest, until the theme is echoed once more and the piece fades out. The original F major theme is echoed, but here in A minor, the key of the Presto; it is thus that the piece ends, without returning to its tonic key.
The Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 is Chopin's third ballade, dating from 1841. It is dedicated to Mademoiselle Pauline de Noailles. The inspiration for this ballade is usually claimed to be Adam Mickiewicz's poem Undine, but sometimes reported to be Mickiewicz's S'witezianka; The true inspiration for this piece remains unknown.
The Ballade No. 3 is usually considered the technically easiest among the four Ballades by Chopin, although it should never be considered easy as a piano composition. It opens with a lengthy introduction marked dolce - "sweet". The introduction is thematically unrelated to a majority of the piece, but is recapitulated near the end of the piece. After the introduction begins a section with the performance direction mezza voce - implying a "gradual crescendo and decrescendo while sustaining a single pitch". Here, the second theme is introduced with repeated Cs in two broken octaves in the right hand. This theme will reoccur several time in the form of variations, and these repeated notes will feature prominently three times, twice on C and once on A-flat. The "mezza voce" section soon developed into a furious F minor chordal section and once again returned to A-flat. The second theme is developed mainly through single or double notes in the right hand; this changes into heavy chords followed by a soft development. Right hand sixteenth-note runs soon follow, followed by a recapitulation of the second theme transposed down from C to A-flat. The key signature then shifts to C-sharp minor. A variation on the second theme follows, this time using rapid arpeggiated octaves and chords built off of them in the right hand, and jumps spanning up to two octaves in the left. Chopin then writes yet another variation on the theme with a dissonant accompaniment of octaves. The key signature then shifts back to A-flat major. In the coda, the theme from the introduction is heard again, this time in thick chords. The piece ends with several right hand trills and runs, along with an arpeggio spiraling downward. Four chords finally provide closure to the piece. As a whole, the piece consists of three themes and several variations on parts of both themes.
Ballade No. 3
Technically, this piece involves arpeggios, jumps, and, in the right hand, rapid turns in the C-sharp minor section.
This is the only one of the four ballades to have a key signature change, from A-flat major to C-sharp minor. This change is later reversed, and the piece returns to its original key. However, it is certainly not the only ballade to display modulation. It is also the only one of the four not to have a Presto con fuoco section. Finally, the third ballade possesses a distinct optimistic musical nature that neither the other three ballades seem to hold, as this is the only Ballade by Chopin to end in a major tonality.