Three sources inspired Chopin to write the Mazurkas, the first of them being the tradition of composing artistic mazurkas which originated in the late 18th century and whose exponent, among others, was Maria Szymanowska. Traditional social songs and ball dances had an impact, too, yet the strongest inspiration came from folk music. Chopin came to know it already as a young child spending summer holidays in Szafarnia in the Mazowsze region and listening keenly to traditional singing and playing of folk bands. While his fascination with folk music is reflected in a lot of his music, it is most evident in the Mazurkas.
The music to which Chopin applied the joint name of the "Mazurka" in fact uses the elements of the three folk dances forming the "mazur group", i.e. the mazur, the kujawiak and the oberek. While all of them share the triple time, the anacrusis (which is typical of the Polish folk music at large), the fragmentation of the first rhythmic value and the repetition of four-and eight-bar sections, each possesses some distinguishing characteristics. The mazur has a moderate tempo, a sweeping character and a free, often lively pace with irregular rhythmic accents. The kujawiak is set apart by its swinging, sing-song melody with mostly weak accents and a slow tempo, and comes in two varieties: the rural one in a usually major key and the small-town one (present in the music of Jewish bands), in which the minor keys prevail. The oberek, in turn, is buoyant and has a gay, lively melody and a very fast tempo. The strong and regular accents, the whirling course of the dance and the sudden stops of movement are its characteristic features.
Most of Chopin Mazurkas combine two of the three dances, usually a mazur and kujawiak, which is the case in the Mazurka in F major Op. 7, Mazurkas in B flat major and A minor Op. 17 and Mazurka in A sharp major Op. 50. The less frequent mazur-and-oberek combination appears, for instance, in the Mazurka in D major Op. 33. Some of the Mazurkas feature elements of other dances, such as the waltz (Mazurka in A sharp major Op. 41) and the polonaise (Mazurka in F sharp minor Op. 59 coda), while others bring the sounds typical of folk bands, such as the repeated chords which appear in the accompaniment and imitate the continuous "buzzing" of the bagpipe or the bass.
The folk provenance is especially audible in Chopin's early Mazurkas, their structure resembling that of their prototypes and their tonality and course of melody following folk singing (indeed, the mazurka is a singing dance in the folk tradition). The Mazurkas from Opus 6 and 7 marry the elements of folk (introduced as quotations or imitations) with social, urban music, while those from Opus 17, 24, 30, 33 and 41 feature typical elements and the structure of folk music. Over time Chopin moves to harmonizing the specific characteristics of the mazur, the kujawiak and the oberek, creating the idiom of his Mazurka. This includes a sophisticated and sometimes synchronic combinations of the different varieties of the dances in different voices, and frequent changes of the rhythm and tempo. An oberek, for instance, is played in a slow tempo which is typical of the kujawiak. Chopin's inclination to treat the folk prototypes in such a sublime manner is already audible in the Mazurkas Op. 33 and 41, and achieves full stylistic individuality in Op. 50, 56 and 59.
The Mazurkas are extremely difficult to play, and the tempo rubato which is typical of Polish folk music, is particularly challenging. Chopin's advice on this "stolen time" (from Italian rubare to rob) is for the "left hand to be the kapellmeister", "play strictly in rhythm", "keep the strict tempo", while the right hand should "play freely with the rhythm", "release the truth of musical expression from all rhythmic constraints, be it through indecisiveness, lingering or hurried and impulsive pre-empting such as when a speaker delivers a passionate speech".
Saturated with the elements of Polish folk music, the Mazurkas have been regarded by many as a manifestation of the composer's longing for his homeland. However, the folk music inspiration can be heard in Chopin's other works, too. The kujawiak elements are audible in the Fantasia on Polish Themes and the finale of the Concerto in F minor, and those of the mazurka appear in the introduction to the Rondo à la Krakowiak and in the trio of the Menuet from the Sonata in C minor.
The popularity of Chopin's Mazurkas prompted a number of Polish composers to compose in this genre. As a result, innumerable mazurkas were produced and a 'mazurkamania' broke out. However, most of the composers were unable to rid themselves of the dependence on Chopin's music - with some exceptions, though, notably that of Karol Szymanowski, who successfully revived the Chopin tradition by writing 20 Mazurkas Op. 50 and 2 Mazurkas Op. 62. Closer to our times, the genre is present in the music of Antoni Szałowski and Bolesław Woytowicz; Aleksander Tansman wrote thirty-six mazurkas collected in several booklets, and Roman Maciejewski is the composer of about fifty works of the genre.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, April 2004.