Zal. A three-letter word with a lifetime of meaning. The Soul of a Pole.
No account of Chopin’s life—or his music—is complete without a reference to zal. It started with Franz Liszt who, in his 1853 biography, paraphrases a scene where Chopin uncharacteristically and candidly describes his muse:
Whatever might have been his transitory pleasures, he had never been free from a feeling which might almost be said to form the soil of his heart, and for which he could find no appropriate expression except in his own language, no other possessing a term equivalent to the Polish word: "zal".
Well, what IS zal? We put that question to a couple of renowned Chopinists: the aristocratic American, Byron Janis, and the Polish jazzman, Leszek Możdżer.
Janis says, “Zal is a word that has many, many meanings, but the basic meaning is kind of a bittersweet melancholy.
Możdżer explains it this way: “Sadness, suffering, a feeling of passing, a feeling of losing everything—that feeling, that very deep suffering which sometimes you feel when there is no sun and you are alone in a cold house.”
“And it also means something else,” Janis adds. “Liszt wrote about it, saying it can mean ‘rage,’ which is very interesting; it’s a paradoxical thing. Chopin’s music had a lot of anger in it, and he admitted that to someone who asked him. He said, yes, most of my music is permeated with zal.”
The last word goes to Franz Liszt: “Zal! In very truth, it colors the whole of Chopin’s compositions.” - Jennifer Foster