Piano Sonata No.2

Frédéric Chopin

Piano Sonata No.2 in Bb minor

Op. 35, B. 114 • “Funeral March Sonata”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Chopin wrote the Funeral March that became the third of the four movements here in 1837 and composed the other three movements two years later. Almost since it was first heard, this work was looked on not as a sonata in form, but as a collection of four rather diverse pieces the composer assembled under one musical roof, Robert Schumann being the first to make the charge of a lack of cohesion between the various movements. However, several musicologists in the late twentieth century pointed out a number of previously overlooked -- or at least ignored -- qualities in this composition that bind the movements as inseparable musical siblings.

The sonata can be viewed as something of a life cycle. The first movement serves as the life force, struggling, loving, and suffering. The ensuing Scherzo enacts demonic forces in the main section and good forces in the lyrical alternate melody of the trio section. When this movement ends with a partial recalling of the second theme, it is not clear which set of forces has emerged victorious. The third movement Funeral March represents death or mourning for the hero of the first two movements. The ghostly finale, with its swirls of dark winds, has evoked many ominous images in the minds of listeners, and serves the life cycle here as a kind of final picture of the deceased, who lies in his quiet grave, with the rustles of the wind the only disturbance above.

There are many thematic and harmonic relationships between the movements, too. The harmonies in the Funeral March can be noticed in all three of the other panels. Also, there is a thematic kinship between the alternate melody in the first movement and the lovely theme in the trio to the Scherzo. Other ties between the first two movements exist: both are stormy and hard-driven at the outset, and each features a lyrical second theme. The structural likeness between the main themes in both these movements is also worth noting: each is built on repeating motifs, the first part of which is presented twice before moving upward on the keyboard to complete the thematic idea.

In the end, this sonata, while unorthodox in some respects, is a painstakingly worked out composition of great subtlety, hardly comprised of a loosely strung-together set of piano pieces. But for all its grand and profound design, it has always been Chopin's themes and keyboard writing that have made this work popular. The third movement Funeral March theme is as famous as any ever written, and the compelling nature of the fast themes in the first movements, and their alternate melodies as well, have made this sonata popular the world over. A typical performance of the work lasts from 22 to 26 minutes.