COMPOSITIONS compositions


The Sonata in B minor – like its predecessor, the B flat minor – does not abandon the dramatic structuring inherited from the Classics. Here, as in Mozart and Beethoven, the composition – rendered coherent by means of differences, contrast and end-weighting – comprises four movements: the first movement, the most important of the four, is a sonata allegro, the last is a rondo, and the middle movements take the form of a dance with trio and a large-scale instrumental song. Above all, however, the Sonata in B minor gives us the essence of Romantic music. The first and last movements are marked by the character of a ballade, the second is a scherzo, and the third is a nocturne.

The opening movement, Allegro maestoso, begins with an exceptionally strong and resolute theme, in a forte dynamic and with octaves and chords that proclaim ‘I am’. Immediately afterwards, however, the theme, instead of growing in strength, falls into piano, softens and melts away (bars 1–13(14)). A moment later, another strong, self-confident phrase breaks off from the narrative stream (bars 17–19). But then a new motif enters at once, in the key of D minor, lacking the buoyancy of the opening bars, more lyrical, though not yet a lyrical counter-theme (bars 23–27). That lyrical counter-theme (sostenuto, in D major) is a manifestation of beauty, expressed with simplicity, but also with poetical elation. To begin with, it immerses us in a nocturne atmosphere (bars 41–55(56)). Then that lyrical, nocturne-like theme suddenly gains in strength and explodes almost convulsively with hitherto pent-up emotion (bars 61–64(65)). At the end comes a moment that is unexpected in a sonata allegro – the final idea manifests itself not as a rousing conclusion to the sonata exposition, but as an independent new theme, enchanting us with its new kind of lyricism, rapturously sung by both hands (bars 76–88).

The part of the Allegro known as the development adopts the tone and character of a ballade quite distinctly. Here, the opening theme, balladically transformed, sounds once again (bars (98)99–106), for the last time in the work. The narrative rises and falls, ranging from accents of strength, from tumult and terror, to moments of nocturne-like quietude, before ultimately finding a haven in the two lyrical themes. It is they that fill the reprise, concluding the first act of the Sonata in lyrical exultation.

The Scherzo, adhering to the key of E flat major, brings a breath from another world – more from the realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than from the world of real, profound feelings. The lightness and airiness of this themeless etudal figuration gives a moment of respite (bars 1–32).

The trio of the Scherzo (in B major) transports us into an even more unreal sphere. The sonorities here – built on low harmonics – sound like a nostalgic echo from a world that has passed, a world remembered with a degree of anxiety. The Scherzo passes, like a dream or a distant memory, and the Largo, which might be termed the central movement of the Sonata, ushers in real feelings and reflections (bars 1–4).

The Largo (in B major) is replete with song. It has the shape and character of a nocturne, a song – actually an aria – of the night. A nocturne cantabile flows through its outermost sections. It is serious, focussed, held back by a dotted rhythm, similar to the cantabile of the Nocturne in C minor (bars (4)5–12). But for a moment the narrative breaks off. The melody halts, ponders a while, and then gives way to questions cast into an empty space (bars 17–23).

Chopin gave the middle section of the Largo to contemplative, self-absorbed music. Its waves seem immobile, though here too the narrative breaks off and we hear ‘unanswered questions’ (bars 29–39).

Outwardly, the Finale has the appearance of a rondo, but it proceeds in a balladic metre, 6/8, and has the tone and spirit of a ballade. First, we are jolted from our contemplation of distant horizons by the opening eight bars, which strike with the force of soaring octaves and chords. Thereafter, in a constant presto (ma non troppo) tempo and with the expression of emotional perturbation (agitato), this frenzied, electrifying music, inspired (perhaps) by the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, runs to the end (bars 9–42(43)). Not even for a moment is this precipitous momentum reined in by the music of the episodes (bars 52–63(64)). And the main theme of the finale, its refrain, running ballade-like with the curtain raised, is transformed and grows in power (bars 226–237(238)).

One hardly wonders that the Sonata’s finale has fired the imagination of countless interpreters. For Marceli Antoni Szulc, it brought to mind an image of the Cossack Hetman Mazepa on a wild steed chased by the wind. Iwaszkiewicz saw this music as presaging the galloping of Wagner’s Valkyries. Both Jachimecki and Chomiński heard in it expression of a demonic nature.

It was late autumn 1844 when Chopin put the finishing touches to this work, which he published the following year with a dedication to Countess Emilie de Perthuis, one of his titled lady pupils.

The Sonata was not universally acclaimed. Liszt did not like it. Niecks felt it had too many motives (in the first movement). Leichtentritt perceived a lack of focus. One English biographer thought that the passion of the finale went beyond the bounds of decency. The most critical commentator of the Op. 58 Sonata was Vincent d’Indy, who acknowledged the lofty melodic inventiveness, but bemoaned a lack of feel for design. Even Żeleński considered the Sonata’s first movement, ‘despite its brilliant details’, as he wrote, ‘an entirely unsuccessful work’. Today, one can hardly contain one’s surprise. During the twentieth century, the B minor Sonata came to triumph on concert platforms and took its rightful place – in the vanguard – among Chopin’s works in the assessments of monographers. In the opinion of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, ‘In the B minor Sonata, Chopin’s music reaches its culmination’. For Arthur Hedley, ‘Its four movements contain some of the finest music ever written for the piano’.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
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Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Allegro maestoso
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Scherzo. Molto vivace
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Finale. Presto non tanto
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