The Kennedy Center

Four Scherzos (Op. 20, 31, 39, & 54)

About the Work

Frédéric François Chopin Composer: Frédéric François Chopin
© Peter Laki

Before Chopin, the world scherzo (literally, "joke") referred to a movement in a longer symphonic or chamber work, which had taken the place of the 18th-century minuet.  It was always in A - B - A form and almost always in 3/4 time; it was filled with harmonic surprises and other playful effects.  In his four scherzos written between 1831 and 1843, Chopin gave the term a whole new meaning; his scherzos are free-standing, independent pieces that retain the outline of the scherzo form yet are more serious than playful in tone (with the possible exception of No. 4).

Scherzo No. 1 in B minor (Op. 20) was written in 1831, soon after Chopin left his native Poland.  The "theme" is sheer virtuosic brilliancy, though with the keen sense of harmonic adventure that characterized Chopin already at the age of 21.  The middle section-much slower than the opening-quotes an old Polish Christmas song.  Upon its return, the fiery "A" section is capped by an even more exuberant coda.

In the Scherzo No. 2 of B-flat minor (Op. 31) from 1837, both the A and the B sections comprise several contrasting themes; their connections and developments show Chopin at his most original.  From the mysterious opening (Chopin wanted it to sound soft and sepulchral) emerges first a startling alternation of pianissimos and fortissimos and then, one of the composer's most glorious soaring melodies.  The Trio introduces an innovative harmonic device by which Chopin makes the transition between two very distant keys completely seamless:  he moves from B-flat minor to A major by "re-contextualizing" the note D-flat as C-sharp (the same key on the piano).  After a hesitant beginning, the Trio takes off on a fantastic journey that includes passionate melodies, fluid figurations and combinations of both.  Then the A section returns with even more dramatic power than the first time.  At the height of the excitement, Chopin "forgets" to return to the initial key of B-flat minor and closes the piece instead in the relative major, D-flat, which is another of the many departures from tradition in this unique masterpiece.

Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor (Op. 39) was begun in Majorca, where Chopin and his mistress, the writer George Sand, spent several months in 1838-39.  After a violent flare-up of the composer's tuberculosis, the couple left the island for Marseille, where the scherzo was finished in the spring of 1839.  The work begins with a passage of considerable tonal and rhythmic ambiguity; there are four notes to the beat instead of three, and the C-sharp tonality takes an exceptionally long time to establish itself.  When the key is finally reached, we hear a stormy theme played in parallel octaves that becomes more and more agitated as it develops.  As a total contrast, the "B" section combines a soft, hymn-like melody with a shimmering virtuoso figure of inimitable charm and grace, moving nimbly downwards from the highest register of the piano.  Both sections are then repeated.  The second time around, the "B" section leads into a tempestuous coda in which the original ideas are fundamentally transformed to achieve maximum intensity and dramatic power.

The fourth and last scherzo (E major, Op. 54, 1842) is the only one that both starts and ends in a major key, and is accordingly significantly lighter in tone than the other scherzos.  Its pensive opening motif contrasts with a skipping rhythmical idea.  Both themes receive extensive development.  The middle section is a gorgeous cantilena (a melody strongly influenced by operatic singing) and is also allowed considerable space to unfold.  Then the light-hearted "A" section returns to end the piece with a wonderful flourish.