The "polonaise" was a Polish peasant dance which blossomed as the splendid "processional" dance of the aristocracy and gentry in the seventeenth century. The Baroque composers, who used a multitude of dance forms, welcomed it. There are polonaise movements by J.S. Bach, Handel, Couperin and Telemann. With the classic era, different melodic shapes arose and composed polonaises began to sound, in their combination of melody and rhythm, like those Chopin must have known; for example, sections of the alla polacca finale in Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Op. 56. In Chopin's Poland, there was a profusion of polonaise composers, including his teacher, Eisner. This was one way in which national traditions could be kept alive, in a Poland which had now been robbed of its independence. Whether written for dancing or for listening, however, they remained basically the simple dance form plus instrumental ornament. It remained for Chopin's genius to expand these germinal shapes into massive, extended dramatic forms that embodied in their very substance and texture the complex feelings of a nation striving for freedom; the desolation, brooding, protest, exultation, conflict and heroic proclamation of undefeated spirit.
Chopin wrote his first Polonaise (in G minor) at the age of eight. In his "student years," he wrote nine such works. These are in the simple form used by other composers, although many have the particular lyrical beauty and distinction that makes them "Chopin." He also used "polonaise" as a plastic language element. His Variations of Mozart's "La ci darem," for piano and orchestra, Op. 2, written at the age of seventeen, closed in "polonaise" style, and the Finale of his Piano Concerto No. I in E minor, written at twenty, embraces the heroic "ring" of a polonaise. He wrote eight such big and powerful works, of which five are on this recording. They will be touched on in chronological order.