Scherzo No.3

Frédéric Chopin

Scherzo No.3 in C# minor

Op. 39, B. 125

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. Chopin composed the Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39, in 1839 while in Majorca; it was published in 1840 in Leipzig.

In the Opp. 20, 31 and 54 scherzos, Chopin achieves his dramatic effect through the ternary form we find in most scherzos. This third of the four independent scherzos, 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. In the scherzos, as in most of Chopin's single-movement works, the overriding principle is that of departure and return. Creating tonal ambiguity is Chopin's primary intention in the amorphous first measures of the C sharp minor Scherzo. Several repetitions of the opening motive move downward chromatically without committing to any particular key. The motive itself creates metric ambiguity as well, for Chopin has directed to play four quarter notes in the space of three. The scherzo proper begins fortissimo with a theme consisting of descending quarter notes in groups of three, finally confirming C sharp minor. In the second half of the scherzo, this quarter note theme becomes the accompaniment to a new, broad idea in the uppermost voice, the polyphony of the section increasing to three voices before the return to the first theme. Elements of sonata form creep into the piece as the return of the main theme modulates to prepare for the D flat major (enharmonic with C sharp major) of the trio.

Marked, "sostenuto" and "leggiero," the trio material provides a foil to the aggressive scherzo. Quiet, falling figures alternate with sustained chords as Chopin explores the range of the keyboard. At first diatonic, the trio becomes harmonically adventurous after the return of the opening, finally moving to C sharp minor for the scherzo reprise. After the scherzo material has run its course, the trio themes appear again, "resolved" to E major (the relative major of C sharp minor). Chopin continues freely with this material, returning to C sharp. In a surprising twist, Chopin closes the piece in C sharp major. As in a number of Chopin's mazurkas, the most intense harmonic activity occurs near the end of the work. The first two-thirds of the piece remain in the same key, although there is a change of mode from major to minor.