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Polonaise: Definition & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Originating in Poland, the popularity of a traditional dance called polonaise quickly spread throughout 17th century Europe. This lesson will discuss the characteristics of the polonaise and the composers who carried on the tradition in their music.

An Evening at a Paris Salon

The year is 1840, and your dear friend has welcomed you into his Parisian home to attend a salon, an intimate gathering at which all of the most important composers, artists and political figures are in attendance. This evening you are quite taken with a pale, elegant man who agrees to play the piano for the assembled guests. He appears so frail you wonder how he can possibly play, but when his hands touch the keys, a powerful emotion is wrung from the piano, and you are astounded at his passion. You will never forget your introduction to Frédéric Chopin and his magnificent polonaise.

Frederic Chopin
Photo of Frédéric Chopin

The Polonaise in Poland

Polonaise is a French word meaning Polish. In the 17th century, Polish folk dances were spreading throughout Europe, and the French grouped them all under this one heading. To the Polish, however, there were many dances, each with its own name and characteristics. Some of the popular dances that contributed to the development of the polonaise included the chodzony, or walking dance, and the chmielowy, or hops dance.

Polonaise dancers
Painting of Polonaise dancers

The polonaise had folk roots that dated to the 16th century in Poland, but it soon became known as a dance of the gentry or aristocracy. It was a stately, slow dance in which couples would promenade around the hall with gliding steps, bending the knee slightly on the first beat. Originally, singers would accompany these dances, but as they gained more notice from the upper classes they became purely instrumental.

The music for the polonaise was distinguished by its rhythm. It was always in 3/4 time and played at a moderate tempo. Each measure consisted of an eighth note followed by two sixteenths on the first beat. The rest of the measure was usually four eighth-notes. The final measure of the song was slightly different, with a quarter note on beat two. Many composers would vary this rhythm somewhat, in an effort to make it their own, but the polonaise rhythmic pattern remained a dominant feature.

The polonaise rhythm, including the final measure
Notation of the polonaise rhythm

The Polonaise in Europe

The polonaise was adopted by many German composers during the Baroque Period. Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Georg Telemann incorporated the polonaise into their dance suites, a composition consisting of several short movements in popular dance styles. Despite the name, these polonaises were often intended to be concert music for listening enjoyment, not music for dancing.

Many other composers adopted the polonaise as well. The Russian composers Modest Mussorgsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote polonaises for orchestras. Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty has a Grand Polonaise in Act III. Tchaikovsky also composed a polonaise for his opera Eugene Onegin. Italian composer Niccolò Paganini wrote Polacca with variations, polacca being the Italian word for polonaise. All of these works were clearly not meant to be danced to, as they were stylized interpretations of the polonaise.

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