Genres Genres

Sonata

The first movement of the B flat minor Sonata is for me something mighty - like a sculpture in rock. It can only be compared perhaps with the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This section of Chopin's work is-to my mind - on a par with the loftiest heights reached by such composers as Beethoven.
(Lutosławski)

Chopin's sonatas occupy an exceptional place in the history of nineteenth-century music, alongside the most magnificent works of Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and Brahms. Chopin composed four sonatas, given below in the order they were written:

As can be seen from this list, Chopin's sonatas constitute a uniform phenomenon with regard to neither the period they were written and published nor even their forces (three piano sonatas, one for piano and cello). Besides the very early Sonata in C minor, Op. 4, we have here the Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 - the very last work in the composer's oeuvre. In this respect, commentators stress the uneven value of the sonatas: the exceptional genius of the sonatas in B flat minor and B minor, the remarkable place of the G minor Sonata as the last work opused by Chopin and announcing a new style, and finally the student-piece character of the C minor.

In spite of this variety, the four works also have one feature in common: they are all rooted in the classical tradition of the sonata as a cyclical work (in four movements, like many of Beethoven's piano sonatas). Chopin succeeded in filling this classical framework with content that was entirely new, creating masterpieces of the Romantic sonata.

The Sonata in C minor, Op. 4 dates from the period of Chopin's composition studies at the High School of Music in Warsaw under Józef Elsner, to whom it was dedicated. This youthful work, not devoid of traits of the "school composition", cannot be compared to Chopin's mature works, and it is performed extremely rarely. Admirers of Chopin's music discover here with surprise the minuet in movement II, so very untypical of the composer of the ballades and mazurkas, and also the unusual 5/4 time in movement III (Larghetto).

Not until some ten years later, soon after his return from Majorca, did Chopin compose the B flat minor Sonata, Op. 35, one of his most outstanding works. As we know, he first wrote the famous Funeral March, which determined the expression of the whole composition. The B flat minor Sonata is often compared to a great drama, leading up to the tragic dénouement in the Funeral March (movement III), followed only by a "brief little finale" (Chopin). The force of expression of the movements/acts of this drama, or rather tragedy, is titanic. The tempestuous first movement Grave-Doppio movimento (with the marked conflict between the two themes and the thrilling development) is followed by a Scherzo, which takes the drama forward, leading into the Funeral March. Then there is the short, enigmatic epilogue (Presto).

The Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 is another masterpiecea synthesis of the late period in Chopin's oeuvre. How different it is from its predecessor. More epic than dramatic, full of reflection and intellectual distance, leading to the affirmation of the world in the fourth movement finale. We hear echoes of other genres: movement II is a cheery Scherzo, the next (Largo) appears to be a nocturne written into a sonata. For some, this is the greatest, most profound of Chopin's works.

The Sonata in G minor for piano and cello, Op. 65 is the latest of the sonatas and indeed Chopin's "final opus". This expansive work comprises four movements, linked to one another motivically. The exceptional value of this work lies in the clear evidence of Chopin's search for a new creative path, a new style, which unfortunately the composer was not fated to develop.

Artur Bielecki

 
Compositions: