Chopin: Ballade No.2 in F major Op.38 Analysis



Form: Scherzo. F Major

Chopin Ballade No.2 in F Major Op.38 Analysis

The opening passage has a gentle, nostalgic character, with very soft dynamic levels. The use of a recurring iambic rhythm (weak-strong, e.g. quaver-crotchet/eighth note-quarter note), occasionally interspersed with the Siciliana rhythm (e.g. in Bar 3. dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver/dotted eighth note-sixteenth note-eighth note) gives the music an idyllic pastoral character. This is also reinforced by the choice of key (F major being the key of works such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, No. 6).

There is an ABA substructure to this section, followed by a closing passage. The melody is always in the upper voice, with a simple chordal accompaniment.

The initial “A” subsection is entirely diatonic (i.e. without accidentals). The phrases are basically four bars in length, although with subtle changes to the beginnings or ending of some phrases (such as the repetition of the first note of the first phrase or the syncopation in the third phrase); the regularity of phrasing (and rhythm) is similar to the use of poetic meter in a literary ballad.

The B section makes a passing reference to A minor, and this key also begins to assert itself in the return of the “A” subsection and in the closing passage.


Bars 1-5: First phrase, F major, beginning with a softly repeated dominant note. The melody spans an octave, from the lower to the upper tonic notes, and mostly contains repeated notes, seconds and thirds. There is a tonic pedal in the bass in Bars 2-3.

Bars 6-9: Second phrase, continuing in a similar vein to the first phrase, now constantly returning to the tonic chord in the second inversion in Bars 6-8, but ending with a stronger V7 – I cadence (with the melody ending on the tonic note on a strong beat).

Bars 9-17: The first two phrases are repeated, with a slightly altered beginning (now slightly syncopated due to the long note and tie, with less repetition of the dominant note, and slightly fuller in texture).


Bars 17-21: Episode, retaining the basic four-bar phrase structure, but beginning with a similarly syncopated feel to the third phrase (Bars 9-10).

It passes sequentially through A minor (Bars 18-19), to C major (the dominant key).

Bars 21-26: This passage begins as a transposition of Bars 5-9 up a fifth to C major (though note the subtle change in the placement of the beginning of the phrase). Bars 25-26 return to F major, and lead directly (still within the same phrase mark) to a return of the first two phrases from subsection A.


Bars 26-37: The return of first two phrases are very similar to Bars 2-9 at first. The expected V7 – I cadence in Bars 32-33 is now interrupted by a sudden return to A minor. Bars 34-47 are a transposition of Bars 6-9 up a third, ending with a V7 – i cadence in A minor.


Bars 37-45: Closing passage. Diminished seventh chords (end of Bars 37 and 39) and siliciana rhythms (Bars 38 and 40, and continuing in the bass in Bars 41-42) lead to V7 – I cadential progressions (Bars 38-39 and 40-41, then reiterated throughout Bars 41-45). The dominant seventh chord contains a sixth (A) instead of a fifth; this note is head in the upper voice, and is repeated in the final bar, as A gradually begins to assert its supremacy over F.


A sudden and violent change of mood. The tempo is much quicker, with an almost constant semiquaver (sixteenth note) pulse. The dynamic level is much louder, with turbulent crescendi and diminuendi. A much wider keyboard range is used, and the melody is sometimes in the left hadn, with a brusque and brutal character. This passage is similar in key and temperament to Chopin’s ‘Winter Wind’ Etude. There are two main subsections.


Bars 46-53: Presto con fuoco theme, A minor. The first six bars use only tonic and diminished seventh harmony, with a tonic pedal in the bass. The tonic chord is decorated with an added sixth (F); the very first chord sounds for an instant like an F major chord, before the F resolves to E and the true minor harmony is revealed.

The left hand has a brusque melodic motif, rapidly ascending in pitch using quaver (eighth note) rhythm. The notes of the melody are based around the tonic triad, sometimes decorated by neighbour notes (i.e. C is approached by its lower neighbour, B natural, in Bar 46, and A is approached by its lower and upper neighbours, G sharp and B natural, in Bar 50).

Cross rhythms add to the feeling of turbulence; the right hand is grouped in crotchets (quarter notes) in Bars 46, 48, and 50, and the left hand is grouped in dotted quavers (eight notes) in Bars 47 and 49.

Bars 52-53 move to G minor, using diminished seventh harmony (F sharp – A – C – E flat).

Bars 54-61: Presto con fuoco theme, transposed down a tone to G minor.

Bars 60-61 move towards D minor (the relative minor of F major), using half-diminished seventh harmony (E natural – G – B flat – D).


Bars 62-70: The key of D minor is never fully established. This passage rises sequentially form D minor via F minor (Bars 64-65) to A flat minor, with a corresponding increase in volume.

A dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver (dotted eighth note-sixteenth note-eighth note) rhythmic motif is sometimes used (e.g. Bar 62), which drives the momentum; it has an entirely different character to the lilting Siliciana of the opening passage.

The climax of the passage is harmonised as a German augmented sixth chord in Bars 68-69 (F flat A flat C flat D natural), which resolves to the dominant of A flat minor in Bar 70.

Bars 70-81: Retransition. Bars 70-79 remain in A flat minor, returning to the dominant or dominant seventh chord at the beginning of every bar, with a gradual decrease in pitch and volume, and a relaxation of the continuous semiquaver (sixteenth note) pulse.

Bars 79-81 contain a series of major triads in first inversion, leading to a C major chord at the end of Bar 81, which becomes the dominant seventh of F major. The tempo also decreases throughout these bars.


The opening material returns and is developed, with a less settled character than before.


Bars 82-87: The first phrase and part of the second phrase return, similar to Bars 2-7. There is a sense of bewilderment after the preceding whirlwind; the two phrases are merged into one, and the second phrase is left unfinished, followed by a moment of silence.

Bars 88-91: Very similar to Bars 34-37, in A minor.


Bars 91-97: The closing passage returns, beginning in a similar way to Bars 37-40, but with the final cadence interrupted by diminished seventh harmony in Bars 95-96 (A – C – E flat – G flat).


Bars 97-107: A variation of the “B” subsection, beginning in D flat major, with the melody in canon in the tenor and soprano voices, and a dominant pedal in the bass.

Bars 101-102 contain diminished seventh harmony, leading, in a similar manner to Bars 95-06, to G flat major from Bar 103.


Bars 107-110: A further transformation of the closing passage (based on Bars 95-96), using diminished seventh harmony, with a marked increase in volume, tempo, and density. The dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver/dotted eighth note-sixteenth note-eighth note rhythmic motif is used constantly in one hand or the other.


Bars 111-114: A transformation of Bar 4 of the opening theme, now strong and defiant, in B flat major (though with some suggestions of G minor). It ends abruptly on an inversion of the dominant seventh of E in Bar 114.

Bars 114-122: The opening material returns in the tenor voice in E major, then in the bass voice in C major from Bar 119.


Bars 123-132: A transposition of Bars 97-107 down a semitone to C major, then via diminished seventh harmony (Bars 126-127) to F major, with a dominant pedal in the bass. There is no tonal closure in the tonic key.


Bars 132-135: A transposition of Bars 107-110 down a semitone, using diminished seventh harmony.


Bars 136-139: A slightly altered transposition of Bars 111-114 to G minor, then to D minor from Bar 138. The bass descends by semitones in Bar 139, leading to…



Bars 140-155: The Presto con fuoco theme returns in D minor then in A minor (from Bar 146). Bars 1480153 are virtually identical to Bars 46-51.


Bars 156-167: Continuing in A minor, often with the dominant in the bass, although the dominant chord is not actually used.


Bars 168-175: A continuation of the previous passage in A minor, with a constant semiquaver (sixteenth note) pulse. The harmony in Bars 168-169 is based around the tonic, French augmented sixth (F – A – B – D sharp) and the dominant seventh chords, decorated with upper and lower neighbour notes (e.g. the chord note E in Bar 168 is preceded by F and D sharp).

Bars 170-171 are based on the circle of fifths progression (usually indicated by the bass note: A – D – G – C – F – B – E) that leads back to the dominant seventh chord. The upper voices contain some chromatic movement.

Bars 176-183: Bars 176-178 contain another sequential progression, with a chromatically-descending bass line and further chromatic movement in the upper voices. It leads, via an inversion of ii half diminished seventh, back to the dominant chord in Bar 179.

Bars 180-183 are a transposition of Bars 176-179 down an octave

Bars 184-187: The bass line gradually rises by semitones, and there is further chromatic movement in the upper voices, with chaotic harmonies, sometimes formed from the whole-tone scale (e.g F – A – B – D sharp and G – B – E flat in Bar 184).

Bars 188-196: A variation of the Presto con fuoco theme, all in A minor. Bars 188, 189, 191, 192 and 193 each end on the dominant chord.

Bar 190 contains secondary dominant (i.e V7 of V) and diminished seventh chords, which lead strongly via a cadential 6/4 to the dominant in Bar 191.

A similar chord progression in Bar 194 takes an unexpected turn, being followed by further diminished sevenths in Bars 195 and a French augmented sixth in Bars 196.

Bars 196-203: Tempo I. The opening theme returns, in A minor, rather than in F major. The initial repeated note is now not the dominant but the tonic.

Bars 198-200 continually return to the tonic chord in second inversion; the last of these cords provides the resolution of the French sixth from Bar 196.

After a short silence, the piece ends with a desolate V7 – i cadence in A minor.