About this work
Chopin composed six Scherzos, four of which were published as individual works, the fifth as part of the Sonata, Op. 35, and the sixth as part of the Sonata, Op. 58. The best known scherzos before Chopin are those by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and these undoubtedly served as models for Chopin. However, in Chopin's more mature scherzos, all that seems to be left of these models is the 3/4 meter. For Chopin, the scherzo form (ABA, or ternary) was indeed a skeleton, just as ternary form was for all of his dance music, and he embellished upon this skeleton as he saw fit.
In the Opp. 20, 31, and 54 Scherzos, Chopin achieves his dramatic effect through the ternary form we find in most scherzos. The third of the four independent scherzos, Op. 39, is in a modified sonata form. A great extension and harmonic foray into distant keys create tension that is resolved with the reprise of the opening material. By delaying the reprise and pushing toward the end of the piece, Chopin increases the dramatic power of its arrival. Furthermore, the reprise is not always given in full, but leads to a coda that features new material. This type of composition stood in the face of the prevailing Germanic works of the time, which were constructed with the principle of "thematic unity." In the scherzos, as in most of Chopin's single-movement works, the overriding principle is departure and return.
Chopin's first Scherzo, Op. 20, does follow the strict ternary form of its models. In his later examples we find him approaching the form more flexibly. Composed in 1831-1832, the Scherzo, Op. 20, was published in Leipzig in February of 1835. Writers have used terms such as "somber," "ironic" and "reckless" to describe the piece; no doubt these are reactions to different sections.
After an eight-measure introduction of two sustained chords, an arabesque-like figure begins that resembles the main idea of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 56. This idea, distributed between the hands, becomes both melody and an accompaniment for sighing chords in the left hand. The first part of the scherzo moves agitatedly to the dominant before the repeat, closing with a leap up to sustained notes that will later become part of the transition to the trio and the introduction to the coda. The second, contrasting idea of the scherzo employs the same figuration as the main theme, but on new keys and with a different overall melodic shape. It is both quasi-developmental and insistently repetitive, with unusual harmonic shifts.
The central molt più lento section, the trio, is a masterpiece of polyphony, with two ideas in the right hand alone. The brightness of the trio's new key, B major, fades only a moment before the reprise of the first scherzo theme. Hesitant descending figures and the leaping idea from the first theme dissolve into a transition leading to the impetuous coda. Throughout the coda, accents on the first beat of the measure in the right hand vie for supremacy with accents on the second beat in the left hand. After a wash of chromatic scales, a few strident chords close the work in B minor. The dynamic range requested by Chopin in the closing measures of the scherzo pushes the music into the Lisztean range of power.
Curated by Chanda VanderHart, Pianist and Musicologist