Beautifully said, but not necessarily accurate. Apart from miniatures, Chopin did write pieces which, with the test of time, became absolute classics of 19th-century music. Sonata No. 2 op. 35 is an outstanding example of it. It hardly resembles a sonata in its most conventional way but clearly is a piece of brilliant and revolutionary music. According to Claude Debussy, who had also doubted Chopin’s ability to compose sonatas:
[Despite Chopin characters’ incompatibility with large-scale works] he came up with a very special, personal way of approaching this form, not to mention all this marvellous music he created on this occasion.
Debussy’s words are a closer reflection of Chopin’s intentions. His aim was not to demolish the structure of the sonata, which he knew well and respected deeply, but rather to enrich it without bringing any fundamental alterations to its existing shape.
Chopin and sonatas
Chopin composed three sonatas for piano solo. His first sonata attempt, Sonata No. 1 in C minor, op. 4, was composed during Chopin’s studies in Warsaw and is regarded more like a ‘sin of youth’ than a successful piece. On the other hand, his two later sonatas, No. 2 in B flat Minor op. 35 and No. 3 B Minor op. 58, are recognised as important points of the evolution of the sonata during Romanticism. Why exactly? We will take a closer look at Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor and find out where exactly Chopin managed to push the classical form’s boundaries further than anyone else before.
Sonata No. 2 was not written all at once. The famous Funeral March was created much earlier than the rest of Chopin's sonatas. The original manuscript carries the date of 28th November 1838. It is the eve of the anniversary of one of the most tragic events in Polish 19th-century history – the November Uprising.
Polish emigrants circles in Paris used to commemorate the uprising on the eve of its anniversary and in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that Chopin composed the Funeral March especially for this occasion, the date on the manuscript is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Chopin composed the remaining three parts of the sonata right after his return from Mallorca, when George Sand (his longtime friend, lover and caretaker) decided to take him to her country mansion in Nohant, mainly to nurse him back to health.
In Nohant, he regained a certain measure of stability but memories of the numerous crises he had gone through on in Valdemossa, Mallorca were still very tangible. In a letter to Charlotte Marliani at the end of July 1839, George Sand wrote:
Chopin is still up and down, never exactly good or bad. […] He is gay as soon as he feels a little strength, and when he’s melancholy he goes back to his piano and composes beautiful pages.
Breaking it down: Chopin’s Sonata No. 2
As is the custom for Romantic sonatas, Chopin’s piece consists of four movements:
- Allegro (ballade)
- Funeral March
Yet this allegro is pervaded by the spirit not of a sonata, but of a ballade. Restlessness, mystery, extreme contrasts of expression, subtle sonorities facing sinister sounds. And most of all that propulsion, unusual in a sonata, evoking a horse’s galloping.
The jagged and almost hysterical melodies are introduced one by one and are interweaved with only a few-bar-long moments of release which always lead to another culmination; there are cascades of insanely fast octaves and a huge and ponderous cadence finishes of the first part.
Chopin never, either publicly or privately, commented on the interdependence of his works. Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that this part was written soon after his return from Mallorca, where he had moments of despair and thought (prematurely) that his days were numbered. This is why the allegro is often interpreted as a reflection of his struggles with a lethal disease. The subject of death is omnipresent in most of Chopin’s works, and the allegro seems to represent a fight for life.
The scherzo’s character is similar to the allegro. Again, it is a game of shocking contrasts of gliding from the most mellow, calm and unforgettable melodies, to the explosive and frenetic etude-like phrases.
The most surprising part of the scherzo is its last bars. In a manner unlikely for any final movement, instead of presenting the main theme it quotes a melody that can be found in the middle part of the scherzo – the trio. Moreover, the melody gets lost and is not played to its very end, leaving the listener with a disquieting feeling of uncertainty.
3. Funeral March
The third part is notable not only for having made it into classical music history but also history as such, as well as popular culture. Chopin’s funeral march has become the default go-to musical piece to accompany the subject of death. The intense, grave and overwhelmingly dark ambience of the music leaves no room for ambiguity and has been used to accompany funerals and death scenes for centuries. It was played during Chopin’s burial at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, during the funeral of John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, as well as during Leonid Brezhnev’s last ceremony. It has been used in numerous films, cartoons and computer games and was reinterpreted by many artists including a famous contemporary electronic music producer (Deadmau5’s Moar Ghosts 'n' Stuff) and the renowned singer-songwriter Neil Young (Change Your Mind).
The first part of this movement is passionate, with the left hand laying heavy chords in a low register, evoking the sound of a ringing church bell The solemn and heroic melody played by the right hand makes it sound ultimately serious and elegiac.
The second part of Funeral March comes with another surprising contrast. Within one bar the movement goes from the darkest mood to the warmest and calmest lullaby with a strikingly simple melody and harmonics. This part brings so much consolation and is so heart-warming that the listener can almost forget about the presence of death lurking around every bar of this movement. However, this ray of hope is soon to be brutally smashed by the return of the first theme finishing with a cadence fading away leaving the listener with nothing but dense silence.
Chopin was very emotional about the Funeral March. The Chopin expert Professor Jeffrey Kallberg wrote:
His colleagues said that he often played in salons, and the only way to get him to stop playing was to get him to play the March. He was so caught up in the emotions of it.
Chopin admitted this freely in a letter he wrote to Solange, George Sand’s daughter in 1848:
When I was playing my Sonata in B Flat Minor amidst a circle of English friends, an unusual experience befell me. I executed the allegro and scherzo more or less correctly and was just about to start the [funeral] march, when suddenly I saw emerging from the half-opened case of the piano the cursed apparitions that had appeared to me one evening in the Chartreuse [in Mallorca]. I had to go out for a moment to collect myself, after which, without a word, I played on.
4. Finale presto
The presto is a movement beyond explanation. It is very short, has no distinguishable parts and barely any harmonic or melodic tensions. It is a dark cloud of sounds which appears for a minute after the Funeral March and stops suddenly, with a little hesitation and a final chord coming out of nowhere. It is regarded as the most mystical element of the entire sonata, also as the most revolutionary and original. It was so different from anything else that could be heard at that time that Schumann wrote of it:
The Sonata ends as it began, with a riddle, like a Sphinx – with a mocking smile on its lips (…) Music it is not.
Romanticism was all about feelings, and so was Chopin in his Sonata No. 2. He simultaneously showcases his mastery of the classical form and brings a lot of personal emotions and phrases characteristic of him only. The intuitive balance between life and death, with highly contrasted movements, makes this work a rarity, a piece which turned out to be significantly ahead of Chopin’s times. Frederick Niecks, Chopin monographer, wrote:
There is something gigantic in the work which, although it does not elevate and ennoble, being for the most part a purposeless fuming, impresses one powerfully.
Time to listen to the entire Sonata No. 2
Written by Wojciech Oleksiak, 23 Feb 2013
Sources: pl.chopin.nifc.pl, 'Chopin' - Mieczysław Tomaszewski, hungarianreview.com, polskieradio.pl
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Scherzo [No. 1], B minor, Op. 20 (Infernal Banquet), 1833
Scherzo [No. 2], B flat minor, Op. 31, 1837
Scherzo [No. 3], C sharp minor, Op. 39, 1839
This scherzo is the most dramatic of the four. It was dedicated to Adolf Gutmann because, according to Wilhelm von Lenz, only Adolf could play the chords in the bass, which cannot be spanned by any left hand (D# F# B D# F# in bar 6). Adolf was one of Chopin's pupil who could apparently punch a hole in a table. It is also the most ironic and forcefully constructed of the four scherzos, with an almost Beethovenian majesty. The Schezro opens with two mysterious questions that are answered by two striking octaves that even seem uncompromising. The scherzo is built upon two sharply contrasting elements. The first theme in C sharp minor starts with a series of strong accents and thundering scales and follows by a fast and heroic march. As soon as the second theme appears in D flat major, the calmness and serenity wipe out the whole tension. These graceful and luminous passages consist of richly harmonized chorale phrases with shimmering waves of falling notes. It is said that these chorale phrases echo songs sometimes heard at the monastery in Valdemosa. The first theme then repeats, not less striking as when it first appears, but ends in a more shocking way that leads to the second theme, which is now in E major, not D flat major. The second theme follows using the same motif as the previous part, but the transition to the repetition in E minor calls for a sad memory that does not even exist before. After several quiet questions, a silent moment, several waves of sound, and falling octaves, the coda finally comes with a lot of agitation and turbulence. When the coda reaches the high E, a series of rolling waves runs up to a high G#, falls down to a daring stroke A in the bass, and concludes the work with brilliant masterstrokes in C#.
Scherzo [No. 4], E major, Op. 54, 1843
The fourth scherzo is the longest but considerably lighter than its three predecessors. It is the only one in which the "humor" characteristic of a scherzo may be present.
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