What we can learn from Maria Szymanowska’s Six Minuets (1819)

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Maria Szymanowska (1789 - 1831) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, and one of the first to write in the genre of the piano nocturne. Defying gender conventions of the time, she divorced her husband and raised her children as a single parent, while continuing an active performing and teaching career. Her pianistic writing, especially her polonaises and mazurkas, seem to have had an influence on Chopin. 

Szymanowska's Six Menuets (1819) are a veritable treasure trove of material for music theory classes. They are not too challenging to play, making them a great choice for a variety of class activities. I'll list just a few highlights of these pieces, and some of their practical applications.

  1. Embellishing tones/Non-chord tones

Aside from a lovely assortment of passing and neighbor tones, these minuets contain more nuanced embellishments like appoggiaturas and incomplete neighbor tones. The example below is the beginning of the Trio (F major) of Minuet no. 6 (D minor). The lyrical melody contains lovely appoggiaturas (second and fourth full measures below) as well as an assortment of other embellishments, including unaccented and accented (chromatic) passing tones, neighbor tones, and an incomplete neighbor tone.

 Example 1

Example 1

2. Chromatic harmony:

The example below is from the first minuet, in A minor. I like this example for teaching, since the Neapolitan appears in first inversion (third and fourth measures below) and serves a clearly pre-dominant function, as shown by the subsequent cadential 6/4 and PAC.

 Example 2

Example 2

Aside from Neapolitan chords, these minuets also have great examples of Augmented sixths. This next example is from the Trio (in B-flat major) of the Minuet in G minor (#2). The Ger+6 chord is approached via an incomplete IV6 with smooth voice leading, and resolves through a cadential 6/4 leading to the dominant, as expected.

 Example 3

Example 3

Finally, there are several examples of applied chords (both secondary dominants and secondary leading-tone chords), as nicely demonstrated by the beginning of the third minuet (E-flat major). A cursory glance reveals the contrapuntal use of a leading tone/dominant function of the submediant, as well as a fully diminished leading tone of the mediant in the predominant phrase area.

 Example 4 

Example 4 

3. Form, phrase structure, and cadential figures:

Not only do these minuets nicely convey the formal structure of the minuet and trio (rounded binary forms and large-scale ternary), they also contain period structures (especially parallel interrupted periods). Functional areas within phrases (tonic, pre-dominant and dominant) are often very straightforward. Several of these minuets contain "textbook" examples of cadential 6/4 chords and resolutions. But these minuets are, in some instances, more sophisticated, inviting critical thinking and collaborative analysis. The fourth and fifth minuets have two trios, demonstrating composite five-part form.

The below example contains a parallel interrupted period* from the first Minuet. If analyzing along the lines of functional areas, the first phrase is useful; the T area in the first line  (featuring tonic expansion) leads smoothly into PD (pre-dominant) and D (dominant) areas in the second line.

 Example 5 

Example 5 

*I analyze the A section of this minuet (shown) as a 16-measure parallel interrupted period, although differing interpretations are possible.

4. Prolongation/tonic expansion

This set has numerous examples of prolongation (especially tonic expansion), as evident in examples 1 and 5. The additional example below, from the Minuet #2 (Trio in B-flat) features contrapuntal expansion of tonic via the V6/5 and neighbor motion in the bass.

 Example 6

Example 6

Sabrina ClarkeComment