Genres Genres

Scherzo

"How will gravity array itself, if wit is already cloaked so darkly?", asked Robert Schumann in his review of Chopin's Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20. His astonishment is easily understood, since the name "scherzo" (It.) literally means "joke", whereas Chopin's scherzos are almost never humorous or light-hearted. Quite the contrary: the four expansive one-movement works to which Chopin gave the title scherzo are marked with a drama and form which were unprecedented in the genre. They are given here in chronological order:

  • Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20, published in 1835 (date of composition difficult to establish precisely)
  • Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31, completed 1837 and published the same year
  • Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39, composed 1839, published the following year
  • Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, composed 1842-1843, published 1843

The scherzo appeared on the threshold of the Baroque era (e.g. Monteverdi's Scherzi musicali, 1607), initially as a vocal-instrumental genre of a cheerful character. Chopin, however, referred to the much later, classical, instrumental scherzo of tripartite, A B(trio) A, construction, in a rapid tempo and triple time, usually forming part of a larger work (sonata, symphony). In keeping with their name, most scherzos before Chopin were marked by brightness and levity; only with Beethoven did the scherzo sometimes gain a different expression: full of anxiety and unbridled energy, almost demonic.

Chopin turned to this second variety of scherzo, but imparted to it a new and unique shape. He rendered the genre autonomous, expanded it considerably and lent it a new, Romantic expression-startling, supremely dramatic, creating the impression of extraordinariness, the dimension of tragedy, a shiver of terror. "It should be a house of the dead", Chopin is supposed to have said of the opening motif of the Scherzo in B flat minor.

Commentators emphasise not only the captivating beauty of the lyrical moments in Chopin's scherzos, but above all the intensity and profundity of the emotions expressed, at times very violent, and also highly volatile. The principle of employing sudden contrasts, the intense suggestiveness of the musical gestures (especially at the beginning of a work) and the culmination of the narrative in virtually expressionistic codas would seem to be the most characteristic features of the Chopin scherzo.

The structure of these works also brings moments of innovation. In the overall architectonic plan it is a tripartite reprise form that dominates, yet this is treated by the composer individually, with allusions to the dualism of sonata form or to elements of the rondo. The dramatic B minor Scherzo, with its piercing chord at the beginning and turbulent texture, has an unusual contrast with a lyrical quotation from the Polish carol-lullaby "Lulaj┼╝e Jezuniu" in its middle section (a rare example of musical quotation in Chopin). The group of dramatic scherzos is completed by the highly popular B flat minor, compared by Schumann to the poetry of Byron, which is played out between the storminess of the outer sections and the "delightful oasis" (Huneker) in the trio, and also the C sharp minor. A brighter tone is only marked in the last Scherzo, in E major.

In the Chopin oeuvre, scherzos also appear-in a more traditional role-in most of the sonatas and in the Trio in G minor, Op. 8, always as the second section of the cycle. Yet in these works it fulfils a different role to that of the autonomous scherzos, as part of a larger form.

Artur Bielecki

 
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