The polonaise, contrary to what many think, was not a peasant dance, as should be inferred from its generally stately manner. Yet, this seventeenth-century form, in 3/4 timing, did make its way from the court into the Polish villages, and then into the more fashionable ballrooms. Chopin was not the first to write polonaises, as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and others dabbled in the form. But Chopin wrote the most famous works in this vein and shaped the character of the polonaise to express national pride and heroism, and also to convey deeper personal sentiments and, not surprisingly, to further expand keyboard color and scope.
This Op. 26 polonaise is not actually the second Chopin composed -- there were nine others he had written prior to his arrival in Paris in 1831. This effort, in the exceedingly uncommon key of E flat minor, is a melancholy and dramatic piece, finely crafted and among the composer's better works in the genre. It begins ominously in the bass, then erupts briefly in preparation for a dark theme, which is absolutely Slavic in its anxious, probing character. After a repeat of this material, a vigorous dance-like theme is next presented, bringing sunlight to the mood. But its short-lived manner cannot rescue the piece from its overall melancholic temperament. A subdued, mysterious middle section, based on the opening material, is chilling and most effective. The main and alternate themes return and the piece ends in an unsettled state.
This is a large work, like most of the composer's polonaises, lasting about nine to ten minutes in a typical performance.