The mazurka originated in the Polish province of Mazovia, near Warsaw. In the seventeenth century, the dance began to spread beyond the boundaries of Poland. Stylized mazurkas, such as Chopin's, combine aspects of this and several other dances, but some characteristics are consistently present: an accented third beat (occasionally the second) in a 3/4 measure; the use of both the natural and raised versions of some scale degrees, particularly the fourth; and a drone bass. During the 1830s and 1840s "art" music mazurkas were very popular in drawing rooms throughout Europe.
Some of the melodies of the mazurkas are unusual in comparison to the melodies of European "art" music. Many of these are related to folk mazurkas in their "modular" melodies consisting of tiny rhythmic and melodic units. Also, some use cross rhythms, chromatic scales, and modes typically not found in Western music. Often, we find remote keys used as colorful excursions from the tonic.
Most of Chopin's Mazurkas are in strict ternary form, some of them actually sporting a da capo to indicate the return to the first section. Chopin's later Mazurkas are more stylized and are in many cases the testing ground for some of his most experimental ideas. Unlike other Romantic-era manifestations of "folk" music, Chopin's Mazurkas contain no actual folk tunes. He uses typical rhythms associated with Polish music, fragments of Polish melodies and Polish rhythmic and cadential formulas and combines them in an original way. Chopin borrowed sounds he found outside European "art" music and used them to create music within that tradition. Some consider Chopin's mazurkas to be the most original of his works.
With the printing of the Mazurkas, Op. 50, Chopin established a pattern of publishing mazurkas in sets of three with a strong opening piece, a simpler second one and a substantial, grandly conceived third work, usually with a contrapuntal texture. The three mazurkas of Op. 59, in A minor, A flat major and F sharp minor, follow this same format. However, Chopin creates unity within this set of contrasting works through tonal connections. The Mazurkas, Op. 59, were published in Berlin in 1845, the year of their composition.
The shortest of the Op. 59 Mazurkas, the second, in A flat major, is no less a gem than the other two. Its key is enharmonically anticipated in the unusual reprise of No. 1, which begins on G sharp. No. 2 is filled with subtle gestures that create a splendid variety at points where we expect none. One example is at the return of the opening theme to close the first theme complex, where the melody, slightly varied, appears in two voices. Unlike the other works of Op. 59, the trio provides little harmonic contrast and its melody very much resembles the main theme.
Chopin denies the satisfaction of our expectations several times in this diminutive work. Perhaps the most notable of these is at the reprise following the trio, where the main theme is shortened to about a fourth of its original length and the melody appears in the left hand for the first four measures. For the listener, this creates a sense of instability that resolves only in the substantial coda. By introducing developmental material at such a moment Chopin abandons what his contemporaries perceived as the "traditional" mazurka format. The coda is really a developmental expansion of ideas from the first theme.