Image attribution: Louis-Auguste Bisson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The first of Chopin’s four Ballades was probably composed around 1834–5. Chopin was about 24 and was living in Paris, having left Warsaw for an unsatisfactory nine-month stay in Vienna around the time of the 1830 uprising against Russian hegemony. Various musicologists think all these historical details help understand what’s going on in the piece. A listener, they say, has to understand this is a work of exile. It’s a piece composed during a revolutionary period when Polish nationalism found its way into culture – in the case of music, by virtue of folk songs or by drawing on folkloric forms from literature. Chopin, unable to return to Warsaw, wrote mazurkas and polonaises. He read the ballades of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz and moved away from many aspects of the classical tradition which arguably reached its peak with the late works of Beethoven. The ballades were complex and revolutionary pieces in every way.
The Ballade lasts just under ten minutes in most professional performances .
It is considered – even by professional pianists – to be one of the most difficult single movement pieces in the repertoire. The pianist Ronan O’Hora says : “you could line up a lot of concert pianists and ask them which is the piece they would least like to play cold before an audience or on camera, and an awful lot of them would say the G minor Ballade. “
“It’s very hard, “ Murray Perahia told me. .”I think it’s one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire.”
The piece ends with what the pianist Noriki Ogawa calls “the hell bit” – a furious Presto coda. ‘I don’t think I ever played the coda accurately,” said the pianist Emanuel Ax. and I think I still don’t play the coda accurately, to be honest. You know, it’s a very, very hard thing.’ And he thinks that everyone has a similar experience to this. ‘It’s impossible for most of us actually.