The folk origins of the mazurek are two other Polish musical forms which are the slow kujawiak, and the fast oberek. The mazurek is always found to have either a triplet, trill, dotted eighth note (quaver) pair, or an ordinary eighth note pair before two quarter notes (crotchets). In the 19th century, the dance became popular in many ballrooms in different parts of Europe. The Polish national anthem has a mazurek rhythm but is too slow to be considered a mazurek.
In Polish, this musical form is called mazurek—a word derived from mazur, which—until the nineteenth century—denoted an inhabitant of Poland's Mazovia region, and which also became the root for Masuria. In Polish, mazurka is actually the genitive and accusative cases of mazurek.
Several classical composers have written mazurkas, with the best known being the 59 composed by Frédéric Chopin for solo piano. In 1825 Maria Szymanowska wrote the largest collection of piano mazurkas published before Chopin. Henryk Wieniawski also wrote two for violin with piano (the popular "Obertas", Op. 19), Julian Cochran composed a collection of five mazurkas for solo piano and orchestra, and in the 1920s, Karol Szymanowski wrote a set of twenty for piano and finished his composing career with a final pair in 1934. Alexander Scriabin, who was at first conscious of being Chopin's follower, wrote 24 mazurkas.
Chopin first started composing mazurkas in 1824, but his composing did not become serious until 1830, the year of the November Uprising, a Polish rebellion against the Russian Tsar. Chopin continued composing them until 1849, the year of his death. The stylistic and musical characteristics of Chopin's mazurkas differ from the traditional variety because Chopin in effect created a completely separate and new genre of mazurka all his own. For example, he used classical techniques in his mazurkas, including counterpoint and fugue. By including more chromaticism and harmony in the mazurkas, he made them more technically interesting than the traditional dances. Chopin also tried to compose his mazurkas in such a way that they could not be used for dancing, so as to distance them from the original form.
However, while Chopin changed some aspects of the original mazurka, he maintained others. His mazurkas, like the traditional dances, contain a great deal of repetition: repetition of certain measures or groups of measures; of entire sections; and of an initial theme. The rhythm of his mazurkas also remains very similar to that of earlier mazurkas. However, Chopin also incorporated the rhythmic elements of the two other Polish forms mentioned above, the kujawiak and oberek; his mazurkas usually feature rhythms from more than one of these three forms (mazurek, kujawiak, and oberek). This use of rhythm suggests that Chopin tried to create a genre that had ties to the original form, but was still something new and different.
The mazurka began as a dance for either four or eight couples. Eventually, Fokine created a female solo mazurka dance dominated by flying grandes jetés, alternating second and third arabesque positions, and split-leg climactic postures.