Scherzo No.2

Frédéric Chopin

Scherzo No.2 in Bb minor

Op. 31, B. 111

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 Chopin as models. 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. (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 "Germanic" works of the time, which are constructed with the principle of "thematic unity" in mind.

Chopin's Scherzo in B flat minor/D flat major was published in Leipzig in the same year it was composed. It is the most popular of Chopin's scherzos. Chopin wished his students to perform the opening phrase of this scherzo in a manner that evoked the image of a mortuary. In a way, Chopin has ultimately gotten his wish, because the piece has been played to death. The problem with this is that our familiarity with the work can lead us to miss its many great moments. Among these are the vast contrasts in the first theme, with its wide leaps and pregnant pauses in the first half and rising and falling scales in the second.

The lengthy trio, in A major, is lacking entirely the somber atmosphere that pervades much of Chopin's music. Its opening idea, which brings to a halt the frenetic energy of the preceding scherzo, is serious, but it is the seriousness of a love song. A single line over sustained chords closes with a Gypsy music-like, dotted-rhythm tune that evaporates into the upper register. The contrasting segment of the trio is a layered idea with the main theme in the highest voice and a counter melody in the alto range with a rapid, duplet/triplet figure. The segment's initial emphasis on C sharp minor shifts to the dominant in its contrasting material, a passage of swirling eighth notes that encompasses nearly the full range of the piano. The "love song" returns, but this does not signal the end of the trio; instead, Chopin brings back the contrasting segment, this time preparing for the return to B flat minor, while working with his material in a developmental fashion. Near the end of the trio, Chopin works in a reference to the secondary scherzo theme.

As if infected by the mood of the trio, the return of the scherzo is less detached than its predecessor, with a sustained note after the second of the triplets. The shift to D flat major (the relative major of B flat minor) begins immediately, albeit surreptitiously. The powerful coda is an admixture of snippets from the scherzo that gives a firm close on D flat.