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Chapter II

National Character of the Polonaise--Oginski--Meyseder--Weber--
Chopin--His Polonaise in F Sharp, Minor--Polonaise--Fantaisie.



It must not be supposed that the tortured aberrations of feeling
to which we have just alluded, ever injure the harmonic tissue in
the works of Chopin on the contrary, they only render it a more
curious subject for analysis. Such eccentricities rarely occur in
his more generally known and admired compositions. His
Polonaises, which are less studied than they merit, on account of
the difficulties presented by their perfect execution, are to be
classed among his highest inspirations. They never remind us of
the mincing and affected "Polonaises a la Pompadour," which our
orchestras have introduced into ball-rooms, our virtuosi in
concerts, or of those to be found in our "Parlor Repertories,"
filled, as they invariably are, with hackneyed collections of
music, marked by insipidity and mannerism.

His Polonaises, characterized by an energetic rhythm, galvanize
and electrify the torpor of indifference. The most noble
traditional feelings of ancient Poland are embodied in them. The
firm resolve and calm gravity of its men of other days, breathe
through these compositions. Generally of a martial character,
courage and daring are rendered with that simplicity of
expression, said to be a distinctive trait of this warlike
people. They bring vividly before the imagination, the ancient
Poles, as we find them described in their chronicles; gifted with
powerful organizations, subtle intellects, indomitable courage
and earnest piety, mingled with high-born courtesy and a
gallantry which never deserted them, whether on the eve of
battle, during its exciting course, in the triumph of victory, or
amidst the gloom of defeat. So inherent was this gallantry and
chivalric courtesy in their nature, that in spite of the
restraint which their customs (resembling those of their
neighbours and enemies, the infidels of Stamboul) induced them to
exercise upon their women, confining them in the limits of
domestic life and always holding them under legal wardship, they
still manifest themselves in their annals, in which they have
glorified and immortalized queens who were saints; vassals who
became queens, beautiful subjects for whose sake some periled,
while others lost, crowns: a terrible Sforza; an intriguing
d'Arquien; and a coquettish Gonzaga.

The Poles of olden times united a manly firmness with this
peculiar chivalric devotion to the objects of their love. A
characteristic example of this may be seen in the letters of Jean
Sobieski to his wife. They were dictated in face of the standards
of the Crescent, "numerous as the ears in a grain-field," tender
and devoted as is their character. Such traits caught a singular
and imposing hue from the grave deportment of these men, so
dignified that they might almost be accused of pomposity. It was
next to impossible that they should not contract a taste for this
stateliness, when we consider that they had almost always before
them the most exquisite type of gravity of manner in the
followers of Islam, whose qualities they appreciated and
appropriated, even while engaged in repelling their invasions.
Like the infidel, they knew how to preface their acts by an
intelligent deliberation, so that the device of Prince Boleslas
of Pomerania, was always present to them: "First weigh it; then
dare:" Erst wieg's: dann wag's! Such deliberation imparted a kind
of stately pride to their movements, while it left them in
possession of an ease and freedom of spirit accessible to the
lightest cares of tenderness, to the most trivial interests of
the passing hour, to the most transient feelings of the heart. As
it made part of their code of honor to make those who interfered
with them, in their more tender interests, pay dearly for it; so
they knew how to beautify life, and, better still, they knew how
to love those who embellished it; to revere those who rendered it
precious to them.

Their chivalric heroism was sanctioned by their grave and haughty
dignity; an intelligent and premeditated conviction added the
force of reason to the energy of impulsive virtue; thus they have
succeeded in winning the admiration of all ages, of all minds,
even that of their most determined adversaries. They were
characterized by qualities rarely found together, the description
of which would appear almost paradoxical: reckless wisdom, daring
prudence, and fanatic fatalism. The most marked and celebrated
historic manifestation of these properties is to be found in the
expedition of Sobieski when he saved Vienna, and gave a mortal
blow to the Ottoman Empire, which was at last conquered in the
long struggle, sustained on both sides with so much prowess and
glory, with so much mutual deference between opponents as
magnanimous in their truces as irreconcilable in their combats.

While listening to some of the POLONAISES of Chopin, we can
almost catch the firm, nay, the more than firm, the heavy,
resolute tread of men bravely facing all the bitter injustice
which the most cruel and relentless destiny can offer, with the
manly pride of unblenching courage. The progress of the music
suggests to our imagination such magnificent groups as were
designed by Paul Veronese, robed in the rich costume of days long
past: we see passing at intervals before us, brocades of gold,
velvets, damasked satins, silvery soft and flexile sables,
hanging sleeves gracefully thrown back upon the shoulders,
embossed sabres, boots yellow as gold or red with trampled blood,
sashes with long and undulating fringes, close chemisettes,
rustling trains, stomachers embroidered with pearls, head dresses
glittering with rubies or leafy with emeralds, light slippers
rich with amber, gloves perfumed with the luxurious attar from
the harems. Prom the faded background of times long passed these
vivid groups start forth; gorgeous carpets from Persia lie at
their feet, filigreed furniture from Constantinople stands
around; all is marked by the sumptuous prodigality of the
Magnates who drew, in ruby goblets embossed with medallions, wine
from the fountains of Tokay, and shoed their fleet Arabian steeds
with silver, who surmounted all their escutcheons with the same
crown which the fate of an election might render a royal one, and
which, causing them to despise all other titles, was alone worn
as INSIGNE of their glorious equality.

Those who have seen the Polonaise danced even as late as the
beginning of the present century, declare that its style has
changed so much, that it is now almost impossible to divine its
primitive character. As very few national dances have succeeded
in preserving their racy originality, we may imagine, when we
take into consideration the changes which have occurred, to what
a degree this has degenerated. The Polonaise is without rapid
movements, without any true steps in the artistic sense of the
word, intended rather for display than for the exhibition of
seductive grace; so we may readily conceive it must lose all its
haughty importance, its pompous self-sufficiency, when the
dancers are deprived of the accessories necessary to enable them
to animate its simple form by dignified, yet vivid gestures, by
appropriate and expressive pantomime, and when the costume
peculiarly fitted for it is no longer worn. It has indeed become
decidedly monotonous, a mere circulating promenade, exciting but
little interest. Unless we could see it danced by some of the old
regime who still wear the ancient costume, or listen to their
animated descriptions of it, we can form no conception of the
numerous incidents, the scenic pantomime, which once rendered it
so effective. By a rare exception this dance was designed to
exhibit the men, to display manly beauty, to set off noble and
dignified deportment, martial yet courtly bearing. "Martial yet
courtly:" do not these two epithets almost define the Polish
character? In the original the very name of the dance is
masculine; it is only in consequence of a misconception that it
has been translated in other tongues into the feminine gender.

Those who have never seen the KONTUSZ worn, (it is a kind of
Occidental kaftan, as it is the robe of the Orientals, modified
to suit the customs of an active life, unfettered by the stagnant
resignation taught by fatalism,) a sort of FEREDGI, often trimmed
with fur, forcing the wearer to make frequent movements
susceptible of grace and coquetry, by which the flowing sleeves
are thrown backward, can scarcely imagine the bearing, the slow
bending, the quick rising, the finesse of the delicate pantomime
displayed by the Ancients, as they defiled in a Polonaise, as
though in a military parade, not suffering their fingers to
remain idle, but sometimes occupying them in playing with the
long moustache, sometimes with the handle of the sword. Both
moustache and sword were essential parts of the costume, and were
indeed objects of vanity with all ages. Diamonds and sapphires
frequently sparkled upon the arms, worn suspended from belts of
cashmere, or from sashes of silk embroidered with gold,
displaying to advantage forms always slightly corpulent; the
moustache often veiled, without quite hiding, some scar, far more
effective than the most brilliant array of jewels. The dress of
the men rivaled that of the women in the luxury of the material
worn, in the value of the precious stones, and in the variety of
vivid colors. This love of adornment is also found among the
Hungarians, [Footnote: The Hungarian costume worn by Prince
Nicholas Esterhazy at the coronation of George the Fourth, is
still remembered in England. It was valued at several millions of
florins.] as may be seen in their buttons made of jewels, the
rings forming a necessary part of their dress, the wrought clasps
for the neck, the aigrettes and plumes adorning the cap made of
velvet of some brilliant hue. To know how to take off, to put on,
to manoeuvre the cap with all possible grace, constituted almost
an art. During the progress of a Polonaise, this became an object
of especial remark, because the cavalier of the leading pair, as
commandant of the file, gave the mute word of command, which was
immediately obeyed and imitated by the rest of the train.

The master of the house in which the ball was given, always
opened it himself by leading off in this dance. His partner was
selected neither for her beauty, nor youth; the most highly
honored lady present was always chosen. This phalanx, by whose
evolutions every fete was commenced, was not formed only of the
young: it was composed of the most distinguished, as well as of
the most beautiful. A grand review, a dazzling exhibition of all
the distinction present, was offered as the highest pleasure of
the festival. After the host, came next in order the guests of
the greatest consideration, who, choosing their partners, some
from friendship, some from policy or from desire of advancement,
some from love,--followed closely his steps. His task was a far
more complicated one than it is at present. He was expected to
conduct the files under his guidance through a thousand
capricious meanderings, through long suites of apartments lined
by guests, who were to take a later part in this brilliant
cortege. They liked to be conducted through distant galleries,
through the parterres of illuminated gardens, through the groves
of shrubbery, where distant echoes of the music alone reached the
ear, which, as if in revenge, greeted them with redoubled sound
and blowing of trumpets upon their return to the principal
saloon. As the spectators, ranged like rows of hedges along the
route, were continually changing, and never ceased for a moment
to observe all their movements, the dancers never forgot that
dignity of bearing and address which won for them the admiration
of women, and excited the jealousy of men. Vain and joyous, the
host would have deemed himself wanting in courtesy to his guests,
had he not evinced to them, which he did sometimes with a piquant
naivete, the pride he felt in seeing himself surrounded by
persons so illustrious, and partisans so noble, all striving
through the splendor of the attire chosen to visit him, to show
their high sense of the honor in which they held him.

Guided by him in their first circuit, they were led through long
windings, where unexpected turns, views, and openings had been
arranged beforehand to cause surprise; where architectural
deceptions, decorations and shifting scenes had been studiously
adapted to increase the pleasure of the festival. If any monument
or inscription, fitted for the occasion, lay upon the long line
of route, from which some complimentary homage might be drawn to
the "most valiant or the most beautiful," the honors were
gracefully done by the host. The more unexpected the surprises
arranged for these excursions, the more imagination evinced in
their invention, the louder were the applauses from the younger
part of the society, the more ardent the exclamations of delight;
and silvery sounds of merry laughter greeted pleasantly the ears
of the conductor-in-chief, who, having thus succeeded in
achieving his reputation, became a privileged Corypheus, a leader
par excellence. If he had already attained a certain age, he was
greeted on his return from such circuits by frequent deputations
of young ladies, who came, in the name of all present, to thank
and congratulate him. Through their vivid descriptions, these
pretty wanderers excited the curiosity of the guests, and
increased the eagerness for the formation of the succeeding
Polonaises among those who, though they did not make part of the
procession, still watched its passage in motionless attention, as
if gazing upon the flashing line of light of some brilliant
meteor.

In this land of aristocratic democracy, the numerous dependents
of the great seigniorial houses, (too poor, indeed, to take part
in the fete, yet only excluded from it by their own volition,
all, however noble, some even more noble than their lords,) being
all present, it was considered highly desirable to dazzle them;
and this flowing chain of rainbow-hued and gorgeous light, like
an immense serpent with its glittering rings, sometimes wreathed
its linked folds, sometimes uncoiled its entire length, to
display its brilliancy through the whole line of its undulating
animated surface, in the most vivid scintillations; accompanying
the shifting hues with the silvery sounds of chains of gold,
ringing like muffled bells; with the rustling of the heavy sweep
of gorgeous damasks and with the dragging of jewelled swords upon
the floor. The murmuring sound of many voices announced the
approach of this animated, varied, and glittering life-stream.

But the genius of hospitality, never deficient in high-born
courtesy, and which, even while preserving the touching
simplicity of primitive manners, inspired in Poland all the
refinements of the most advanced state of civilization,--how
could it be exiled from the details of a dance so eminently
Polish? After the host had, by inaugurating the fete, rendered
due homage to all who were present, any one of his guests had the
right to claim his place with the lady whom he had honored by his
choice. The new claimant, clapping his hands, to arrest for a
moment the ever moving cortege, bowed before the partner of the
host, begging her graciously to accept the change; while the
host, from whom she had been taken, made the same appeal to the
lady next in course. This example was followed by the whole
train. Constantly changing partners, whenever a new cavalier
claimed the honor of leading the one first chosen by the host,
the ladies remained in the same succession during the whole
course; while, on the contrary, as the gentlemen continually
replaced each other, he who had commenced the dance, would, in
its progress, become the last, if not indeed entirely excluded
before its close.

Each cavalier who placed himself in turn at the head of the
column, tried to surpass his predecessors in the novelty of the
combinations of his opening, in the complications of the windings
through which he led the expectant cortege; and this course, even
when restricted to a single saloon, might be made remarkable by
the designing of graceful arabesques, or the involved tracing of
enigmatical ciphers. He made good his claim to the place he had
solicited, and displayed his skill, by inventing close,
complicated and inextricable figures; by describing them with so
much certainty and accuracy, that the living ribbon, turned and
twisted as it might be, was never broken in the loosing of its
wreathed knots; and by so leading, that no confusion or graceless
jostling should result from the complicated torsion. The
succeeding couples, who had only to follow the figures already
given, and thus continue the impulsion, were not permitted to
drag themselves lazily and listlessly along the parquet. The step
was rhythmic, cadenced, and undulating; the whole form swayed by
graceful wavings and harmonious balancings. They were careful
never to advance with too much haste, nor to replace each other
as if driven on by some urgent necessity. On they glided, like
swans descending a tranquil stream, their flexile forms swayed by
the ebb and swell of unseen and gentle waves. Sometimes, the
gentleman offered the right, sometimes, the left hand to his
partner; touching only the points of her fingers, or clasping the
slight hand within his own, he passed now to her right, now to
her left, without yielding the snowy treasure. These complicated
movements, being instantaneously imitated by every pair, ran,
like an electric shiver, through the whole length of this
gigantic serpent. Although apparently occupied and absorbed by
these multiplied manoeuvres, the cavalier yet found time to bend
to his lady and whisper sweet flatteries in her ear, if she were
young; if young no longer, to repose confidence, to urge
requests, or to repeat to her the news of the hour. Then,
haughtily raising himself, he would make the metal of his arms
ring, caress his thick moustache, giving to all his features an
expression so vivid, that the lady was forced to respond by the
animation of her own countenance.

Thus, it was no hackneyed and senseless promenade which they
executed; it was, rather, a parade in which the whole splendor of
the society was exhibited, gratified with its own admiration,
conscious of its own elegance, brilliancy, nobility and courtesy.
It was a constant display of its lustre, its glory, its renown.
Men grown gray in camps, or in the strife of courtly eloquence;
generals more often seen in the cuirass than in the robes of
peace; prelates and persons high in the Church; dignitaries of
State aged senators; warlike palatines; ambitious castellans;--
were the partners who were expected, welcomed, disputed and
sought for, by the youngest, gayest, and most brilliant women
present. Honor and glory rendered ages equal, and caused years to
be forgotten in this dance; nay, more, they gave an advantage
even over love. It was while listening to the animated
descriptions of the almost forgotten evolutions and dignified
capabilities of this truly national dance, from the lips of those
who would never abandon the ancient Zupan and Kontusz, and who
still wore their hair closely cut round their temples, as it had
been worn by their ancestors, that we first fully understood in
what a high degree this haughty nation possessed the innate
instinct of its own exhibition, and how entirely it had
succeeded, through its natural grace and genius, in poetizing its
love of ostentation by draping it in the charms of noble
emotions, and wrapping round it the glittering robes of martial
glory.

When we visited the country of Chopin, whose memory always
accompanied us like a faithful guide who constantly keeps our
interest excited, we were fortunate enough to meet with some of
the peculiar characters, daily growing more rare, because
European civilization, even where it does not modify the basis of
character, effaces asperities, and moulds exterior forms. We
there encountered some of those men gifted with superior
intellect, cultivated and strongly developed by a life of
incessant action, yet whose horizon does not extend beyond the
limits of their own country, their own society, their own
traditions. During our intercourse, facilitated by an
interpreter, with these men of past days, we were able to study
them and to understand the secret of their greatness. It was
really curious to observe the inimitable originality caused by
the utter exclusiveness of the view taken by them. This limited
cultivation, while it greatly diminishes the value of their ideas
upon many subjects, at the same time gifts the mind with a
peculiar force, almost resembling the keen scent and the acute
perceptions of the savage, for all the things near and dear to
it. Only from a mind of this peculiar training, marked by a
concentrative energy that nothing can distract from its course,
every thing beyond the circle of its own nationality remaining
alien to it, can we hope to obtain an exact picture of the past;
for it alone, like a faithful mirror, reflects it in its primal
coloring, preserves its proper lights and shades, and gives it
with its varied and picturesque accompaniments. From such minds
alone can we obtain, with the ritual of customs which are rapidly
becoming extinct, the spirit from which they emanated. Chopin was
born too late, and left the domestic hearth too early, to be
himself in possession of this spirit; but he had known many
examples of it, and, through the memories which surrounded his
childhood, even more fully than through the literature and
history of his country, he found by induction the secrets of its
ancient prestige, which he evoked from the dim and dark land of
forgetfulness, and, through the magic of his poetic art, endowed
with immortal youth. Poets are better comprehended and
appreciated by those who have made themselves familiar with the
countries which inspired their songs. Pindar is more fully
understood by those who have seen the Parthenon bathed in the
radiance of its limpid atmosphere; Ossian, by those familiar with
the mountains of Scotland, with their heavy veils and long
wreaths of mist. The feelings which inspired the creations of
Chopin can only be fully appreciated by those who have visited
his country. They must have seen the giant shadows of past
centuries gradually increasing, and veiling the ground as the
gloomy night of despair rolled on; they must have felt the
electric and mystic influence of that strange "phantom of glory"
forever haunting martyred Poland. Even in the gayest hours of
festival, it appalls and saddens all hearts. Whenever a tale of
past renown, a commemoration of slaughtered heroes is given, an
allusion to national prowess is made, its resurrection from the
grave is instantaneous; it takes its place in the banquet-hall,
spreading an electric terror mingled with intense admiration; a
shudder, wild and mystic as that which seizes upon the peasants
of Ukraine, when the "Beautiful Virgin," white as Death, with her
girdle of crimson, is suddenly seen gliding through their
tranquil village, while her shadowy hand marks with blood the
door of each cottage doomed to destruction.

During many centuries, the civilization of Poland was entirely
peculiar and aboriginal; it did not resemble that of any other
country; and, indeed, it seems destined to remain forever unique
in its kind. As different from the German feudalism which
neighboured it upon the West, as from the conquering spirit of
the Turks which disquieted it on the East, it resembled Europe in
its chivalric Christianity, in its eagerness to attack the
infidel, even while receiving instruction in sagacious policy, in
military tactics, and sententious reasoning, from the masters of
Byzantium. By the assumption, at the same time, of the heroic
qualities of Mussulman fanaticism and the sublime virtues of
Christian sanctity and humility, [Footnote: It is well known with
how many glorious names Poland has enriched the martyrology of
the Church. In memorial of the countless martyrs it had offered,
the Roman Church granted to the order of Trinitarians, or
Redemptorist Brothers, whose duty it was to redeem from slavery
the Christians who had fallen into the hands of the Infidels, the
distinction, only granted to this nation, of wearing a crimson
belt. These victims to benevolence were generally from the
establishments near the frontiers, such as those of Kamieniec-
Podolski.] it mingled the most heterogeneous elements, and thus
planted in its very bosom the seeds of ruin and decay.

The general culture of Latin letters, the knowledge of and love
for Italian and French literature gave a lustre and classical
polish to the startling contrasts we hare attempted to describe.
Such a civilization must necessarily impress all its
manifestations with its own seal. As was natural for a nation
always engaged in war, forced to reserve its deeds of prowess and
valor for its enemies upon the field of battle, it was not famed
for the romances of knight-errantry, for tournaments or jousts;
it replaced the excitement and splendor of the mimic war by
characteristic fetes, in which the gorgeousness of personal
display formed the principal feature.

There is certainly nothing new in the assertion, that national
character is, in some degree, revealed by national dances. We
believe, however, there are none in which the creative impulses
can be so readily deciphered, or the ensemble traced with so much
simplicity, as in the Polonaise. In consequence of the varied
episodes which each individual was expected to insert in the
general frame, the national intuitions were revealed with the
greatest diversity. When these distinctive marks disappeared,
when the original flame no longer burned, when no one invented
scenes for the intermediary pauses, when to accomplish
mechanically the obligatory circuit of a saloon, was all that was
requisite, nothing but the skeleton of departed glory remained.

We would certainly have hesitated to speak of the Polonaise,
after the exquisite verses which Mickiewicz has consecrated to
it, and the admirable description which he has given of it in the
last Canto of the "Pan Tadeusz," but that this description is to
be found only in a work not yet translated, and, consequently,
only known to the compatriots of the Poet. [Footnote: It has been
translated into German.--T.] It would have been presumptuous,
even under another form, to have ventured upon a subject already
sketched and colored by such a hand, in his romantic Epic, in
which beauties of the highest order are set in such a scene as
Ruysdael loved to paint; where a ray of sunshine, thrown through
heavy storm-clouds, falls upon one of those strange trees never
wanting in his pictures, a birch shattered by lightning, while
its snowy bark is deeply stained, as if dyed in the blood flowing
from its fresh and gaping wounds. The scenes of "Pan Tadeusz" are
laid at the beginning of the present century, when many still
lived who retained the profound feeling and grave deportment of
the ancient Poles, mingled with those who were even then under
the sway of the graceful or giddying passions of modern origin.
These striking and contrasting types existing together at that
period, are now rapidly disappearing before that universal
conventionalism which is at present seizing and moulding the
higher classes in all cities and in all countries. Without doubt,
Chopin frequently drew fresh inspiration from this noble poem,
whose scenes so forcibly depict the emotions he best loved to
reproduce.

The primitive music of the Polonaise, of which we have no example
of greater age than a century, possesses but little value for
art. Those Polonaises which do not bear the names of their
authors, but are frequently marked with the name of some hero,
thus indicating their date, are generally grave and sweet. The
Polonaise styled "de Kosciuszko," is the most universally known,
and is so closely linked with the memories of his epoch, that we
have known ladies who could not hear it without breaking into
sobs. The Princess F. L., who had been loved by Kosciuszko, in
her last days, when age had enfeebled all her faculties, was only
sensible to the chords of this piece, which her trembling hands
could still find upon the key-board, though the dim and aged eye
could no longer see the keys. Some contemporary Polonaises are of
a character so sad, that they might almost be supposed to
accompany a funeral train.

The Polonaises of Count Oginski [Footnote: Among the Polonaises
of Count Oginski, the one in F Major has especially retained its
celebrity. It was published with a vignette, representing the
author in the act of blowing his brains out with a pistol. This
was merely a romantic commentary, which was for a long time
mistaken for a fact.] which next appeared, soon attained great
popularity through the introduction of an air of seductive
languor into the melancholy strains. Full of gloom as they still
are, they soothe by their delicious tenderness, by their naive
and mournful grace. The martial rhythm grows more feeble; the
march of the stately train, no longer rustling in its pride of
state, is hushed in reverential silence, in solemn thought, as if
its course wound on through graves, whose sad swells extinguish
smiles and humiliate pride. Love alone survives, as the mourners
wander among the mounds of earth so freshly heaped that the grass
has not yet grown upon them, repeating the sad refrain which the
Bard of Erin caught from the wild breezes of the sea:

"Love born of sorrow, like sorrow is true!"

In the well known pages of Oginski may be found the sighing of
analogous thoughts: the very breath of love is sad, and only
revealed through the melancholy lustre of eyes bathed in tears.

At a somewhat later stage, the graves and grassy mounds were all
passed, they are seen only in the distance of the shadowy
background. The living cannot always weep; life and animation
again appear, mournful thoughts changed into soothing memories,
return on the ear, sweet as distant echoes. The saddened train of
the living no longer hush their breath as they glide on with
noiseless precaution, as if not to disturb the sleep of those who
have just departed, over whose graves the turf is not yet green;
the imagination no longer evokes only the gloomy shadows of the
past. In the Polonaises of Lipinski we hear the music of the
pleasure-loving heart once more beating joyously, giddily,
happily, as it had done before the days of disaster and defeat.
The melodies breathe more and more the perfume of happy youth;
love, young love, sighs around. Expanding into expressive songs
of vague and dreamy character, they speak but to youthful hearts,
cradling them in poetic fictions, in soft illusions. No longer
destined to cadence the steps of the high and grave personages
who ceased to bear their part in these dances, [Footnote: Bishops
and Primates formerly assisted in these dances; at a later date
the Church dignitaries took no part in them.] they are addressed
to romantic imaginations, dreaming rather of rapture than of
renown. Meyseder advanced upon this descending path; his dances,
full of lively coquetry, reflect only the magic charms of youth
and beauty. His numerous imitations have inundated us with pieces
of music, called Polonaises, out which have no characteristics to
justify the name.

The pristine and vigorous brilliancy of the Polonaise was again
suddenly given to it by a composer of true genius. Weber made of
it a Dithyrambic, in which the glittering display of vanished
magnificence again appeared in its ancient glory. He united all
the resources of his art to ennoble the formula which had been so
misrepresented and debased, to fill it with the spirit of the
past; not seeking to recall the character of ancient music, he
transported into music the characteristics of ancient Poland.
Using the melody as a recital, he accentuated the rhythm, he
colored his composition, through his modulations, with a
profusion of hues not only suitable to his subject, but
imperiously demanded by it. Life, warmth, and passion again
circulated in his Polonaises, yet he did not deprive them of the
haughty charm, the ceremonious and magisterial dignity, the
natural yet elaborate majesty, which are essential parts of their
character. The cadences are marked by chords, which fall upon the
ear like the rattling of swords drawn from their scabbards. The
soft, warm, effeminate pleadings of love give place to the
murmuring of deep, fall, bass voices, proceeding from manly
breasts used to command; we may almost hear, in reply, the wild
and distant neighings of the steeds of the desert, as they toss
the long manes around their haughty heads, impatiently pawing the
ground, with their lustrous eye beaming with intelligence and
full of fire, while they bear with stately grace the trailing
caparisons embroidered with turquoise and rubies, with which the
Polish Seigneurs loved to adorn them. [Footnote: Among the
treasures of Prince radziwill at Nieswirz were to be seen, in the
days of former splendor, twelve sets of horse trappings, each of
a different color, incrusted with precious stones. The twelve
Apostles, life size, in massive silver, were also to be seen
there. This luxury will cease to astonish us when we consider
that the family of Radziwill was descended from the last Grand
Pontiff of Lithuania, to whom, when he embraced Christianity,
were given all the forests and plains which had before been
consecrated to the worship of the heathen Deities; and that
toward the close of the last century, the family still possessed
eight hundred thousand serfs, although its riches had then
considerably diminished. Among the collection of treasures of
which we speak, was an exceedingly curious relic, which is still
in existence. It is a picture of St. John the Baptist, surrounded
by a Bannerol bearing the inscription: "In the name of the Lord,
John, thou shalt be Conqueror." It was found by Jean Sobieski
himself, after the victory which he had won, under the walls of
Vienna, in the tent of the Vizier Kara Mustapha. It was presented
after his death, by Marie d'Arquin, to a Prince Radziwill, with
an inscription in her own hand- writing which indicates its
origin, and the presentation which she makes of it. The
autograph, with the royal seal, is on the reverse side of the
canvas.] How did Weber divine the Poland of other days? Had he
indeed the power to call from the grave of the past, the scenes
which we have just contemplated, that he was thus able to clothe
them with life, to renew their earlier associations? Vain
questions! Genius is always endowed with its own sacred
intuitions! Poetry ever reveals to her chosen the secrets of her
wild domain!

All the poetry contained in the Polonaises had, like a rich sap,
been so fully expressed from them by the genius of Weber, they
had been handled with a mastery so absolute, that it was, indeed,
a dangerous and difficult thing to attempt them, with the
slightest hope of producing the same effect. He has, however,
been surpassed in this species of composition by Chopin, not only
in the number and variety of works in this style, but also in the
more touching character of the handling, and the new and varied
processes of harmony. Both in construction and spirit, Chopin's
Polonaise In A, with the one in A flat major, resembles very much
the one of Weber's in E Major. In others he relinquished this
broad style: Shall we say always with a more decided success? In
such a question, decision were a thorny thing. Who shall restrict
the rights of a poet over the various phases of his subject? Even
in the midst of joy, may he not be permitted to be gloomy and
oppressed? After having chanted the splendor of glory, may he not
sing of grief? After having rejoiced with the victorious, may he
not mourn with the vanquished? We may, without any fear of
contradiction, assert, that it is not one of the least merits of
Chopin, that he has, consecutively, embraced ALL the phases of
which the theme is susceptible, that he has succeeded in
eliciting from it all its brilliancy, in awakening from it all
its sadness. The variety of the moods of feeling to which he was
himself subject, aided him in the reproduction and comprehension
of such a multiplicity of views. It would be impossible to follow
the varied transformations occurring in these compositions, with
their pervading melancholy, without admiring the fecundity of his
creative force, even when not fully sustained by the higher
powers of his inspiration. He did not always confine himself to
the consideration of the pictures presented to him by his
imagination and memory, taken en masse, or as a united whole.
More than once, while contemplating the brilliant groups and
throngs flowing on before him, has he yielded to the strange
charm of some isolated figure, arresting it in its course by the
magic of his gaze, and, suffering the gay crowds to pass on, he
has given himself up with delight to the divination of its mystic
revelations, while he continued to weave his incantations and
spells only for the entranced Sibyl of his song.

His GRAND POLONAISE in F SHARP MINOR, must be ranked among his
most energetic compositions. He has inserted in it a MAZOURKA.
Had he not frightened the frivolous world of fashionable life, by
the gloomy grotesqueness with which he introduced it in an
incantation so fantastic, this mode might have become an
ingenious caprice for the ball-room. It is a most original
production, exciting us like the recital of some broken dream,
made, after a night of restlessness, by the first dull, gray,
cold, leaden rays of a winter's sunrise. It is a dream-poem, in
which the impressions and objects succeed each other with
startling incoherency and with the wildest transitions, reminding
us of what Byron says in his "DREAM:"

"...Dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
* * * * * * * *
And look like heralds of Eternity."

The principal motive is a weird air, dark as the lurid hour which
precedes a hurricane, in which we catch the fierce exclamations
of exasperation, mingled with a bold defiance, recklessly hurled
at the stormy elements. The prolonged return of a tonic, at the
commencement of each measure, reminds us of the repeated roar of
artillery--as if we caught the sounds from some dread battle
waging in the distance. After the termination of this note, a
series of the most unusual chords are unrolled through measure
after measure. We know nothing analogous, to the striking effect
produced by this, in the compositions of the greatest masters.
This passage is suddenly interrupted by a SCENE CHAMPETRE, a
MAZOURKA in the style of an Idyl, full of the perfume of lavender
and sweet marjoram; but which, far from effacing the memory of
the profound sorrow which had before been awakened, only
augments, by its ironical and bitter contrast, our emotions of
pain to such a degree, that we feel almost solaced when the first
phrase returns; and, free from the disturbing contradiction of a
naive, simple, and inglorious happiness, we may again sympathize
with the noble and imposing woe of a high, yet fatal struggle.
This improvisation terminates like a dream, without other
conclusion than a convulsive shudder; leaving the soul under the
strangest, the wildest, the most subduing impressions.

The "POLONAISE-FANTAISIE" is to be classed among the works which
belong to the latest period of Chopin's compositions, which are
all more or less marked by a feverish and restless anxiety. No
bold and brilliant pictures are to be found in it; the loud tramp
of a cavalry accustomed to victory is no longer heard; no more
resound the heroic chants muffled by no visions of defeat--the
bold tones suited to the audacity of those who were always
victorious. A deep melancholy--ever broken by startled movements,
by sudden alarms, by disturbed rest, by stifled sighs--reigns
throughout. We are surrounded by such scenes and feelings as
might arise among those who had been surprised and encompassed on
all sides by an ambuscade, the vast sweep of whose horizon
reveals not a single ground for hope, and whose despair had
giddied the brain, like a draught of that wine of Cyprus which
gives a more instinctive rapidity to all our gestures, a keener
point to all our words, a more subtle flame to all our emotions,
and excites the mind to a pitch of irritability approaching
insanity.

Such pictures possess but little real value for art. Like all
descriptions of moments of extremity, of agonies, of death
rattles, of contractions of the muscles where all elasticity is
lost, where the nerves, ceasing to be the organs of the human
will, reduce man to a passive victim of despair; they only serve
to torture the soul. Deplorable visions, which the artist should
admit with extreme circumspection within the graceful circle of
his charmed realm!
Published:
Jan 6, 2016
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