COMPOSITIONS compositions


‘Chopin is still up and down, never exactly good or bad. […] He is gay as soon as he feels a little strength, and when he’s melancholy he falls back onto his piano and composes beautiful pages.’
(Letter from George Sand to Charlotte Marliani, end of July 1839)

That was the period when Chopin created a work that is considered to be one of the greatest masterworks of the nineteenth century: the B flat minor Sonata. On 8 August 1839, Chopin wrote to Fontana: ‘I’m writing here a Sonata en si bémol mineur […] a march and a short finale, perhaps three of my pages; the left hand chatters in unison with the right after the march’.

Judging from the composer’s words, there is nothing simpler: just sit down and write. Thanks to George Sand, we can imagine how that task looked close up. Although her account should be taken with a pinch of salt, as it issued from the pen of a novelist (and a rather exalted one at that), that pen did belong to someone who watched Chopin compose on a daily basis.

‘His creativity was spontaneous, miraculous’, wrote Sand in The Story of My Life, ‘he found it without seeking it, without expecting it. It arrived at his piano suddenly, completely, sublimely, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he would hasten to hear it again by recreating it on his instrument.’[i]

That is the first part of the account. The second part brings quite a surprise: ‘But then would begin the most heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. […] He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, repeating or changing a single measure a hundred times, writing it and erasing it with equal frequency [here the writer seems to have got carried away], and beginning again the next day with desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring.’[ii]

Whatever one may think of Mrs Sand’s text, the conclusion is irresistible: the melodic ideas and initial shapes of a work were born directly and spontaneously. A great deal of time and reflection was needed, however, to complete the work and polish the details. Chopin did not consider what ‘inspiration’ or fleeting fancy had given him to be his work. That was merely the starting point for the laborious chiselling of every single bar. The effect of those labours can be felt when listening to his music, which contains not a single superfluous note. The extreme succinctness of the B flat minor Sonata suggested a comparison to Witold Lutosławski: ‘it’s like a sculpture hewn from rock’.

Much has been written about the first four bars and two chords – so distinctive, so memorable. In 1929, Ludwik Bronarski devoted a separate study to them. Chopin instructs them to be played grave and forte. Thus they have weight and strength. One hears in them tragedy, menace, gnawing questions and oracular judgment. Such words have been used by monographers to describe the moving and disturbing music of the opening bars of the B flat minor Sonata. There is no doubt that it does not augur anything good. And that is probably its function. What follows (the Sonata’s first movement) has the form of a sonata allegro: the clashing of two themes in an exposition, then a development and a reprise. In its details, the form departs from sonata principles, but in general it conforms to them. Yet this Allegro is pervaded by the spirit not of a sonata, but of a ballade. Restlessness, mystery, extreme contrasts of expression, subtle sonorities facing sinister sounds. And most of all that propulsion, unusual in a sonata, evoking a horse’s galloping. And it is in this breathless rhythm and propulsion that the first of the Allegro’s themes (agitato) appears (bars 5–24). Suddenly, unexpectedly, the frenzied rush comes to a halt. The music – with a couple of chords – stands still (bars 35–40(41)).

And a vista onto another world opens up. It is filled with the song of the Allegro’s second theme, sounding in the relative key (D flat major). The song of the chords radiates peace and warmth, as yet restrained (sostenuto), though slowly rising to a peak (bars 41–56). Soon, this music will bloom and sing out in high octaves, surging towards a moment of ecstasy (bars 65–80). Then the original motion and propulsion returns, bearing the closing motives, which bring a strong and passionate end to the so-called exposition of the sonata allegro, and so the presentation of the principal characters (or the principal forces) of the drama (bars 81–104).

The middle section of the Allegro leads us into a space and time that seem surreal: wholly balladic. Imbued with mystery, the narrative unfolds in a hushed voice. It is full of importunate questions and enigmatic replies (bars 106–124(125)). A moment later, the music will erupt violently, almost spasmodically (bars (128)129–143).

The reprise is particularly beautiful: there is another explosion of the narrative, ending with great abatement. And on the crest of that wave (this time in the key of B flat major), the captivating melody of the second theme manifests itself again (bars 162–176). The first theme vanishes, resurfacing again for just a moment in the coda, in the ominous, disturbing octaves of the bass (bars 230–242).

The first movement of the B flat minor Sonata ends with a series of chords played fff, but a sensitive listener feels that nothing has really ended here yet, that the closing cadence of the Allegro has not concluded the drama. This was barely the opening act.

The second act of the drama, a Scherzo en mi bémol mineur (in E flat minor), sustains the tension created by the first movement. Here, as well, two worlds that are poles apart will be set against one another. The principal theme of the Scherzo strikes with force and aggression. Zdzisław Jachimecki sees ‘demonic features’ in it. And indeed, one might say that it combines Beethovenian vigour with the wildness of Goya’s Caprichos (bars 1–20 (21)). The complementary theme neither baulks the vigour nor lessens the wildness. Again, besides the dynamics, an important role is assigned to the demonic play of accents (bars 37–64). The trio of the Scherzo emerges suddenly out of silence. It unfolds at a slower tempo (in the key of G flat major). It brings one of those simple melodies that one tends to remember. The piano sings it in reverie, as if forgetting to end it or waiting for an echo to sound in some strange, resonating space (bars 81–100). For a moment, the trio’s song breaks off. A new theme comes to the fore (as a mutatio of the principal melody), led in two parts. This is a very odd dialogue, in which one voice strives to rise upwards whilst the other seems to crawl along the ground (bars 144–160). The Scherzo’s last bars bring acute anxiety. They end the Scherzo not with a strong accent, with that principal ‘demonic’ theme, but with a reminder of the songful melody of the trio, not finished, left to echo. And the echo leads straight into music that simply had to sound in the Sonata: to the notes of a funeral march (bars 274–288 + III, bar 1 (2)).

‘When I was playing my Sonata in B flat minor amidst a circle of English friends, an unusual experience befell me. I executed the allegro and scherzo more or less correctly [Chopin was always self-critical] and was just about to start the [funeral] march, when suddenly I saw emerging from the half-opened case of the piano the cursed apparitions that had appeared to me one evening in the Chartreuse [on Majorca]. I had to go out for a moment to collect myself, after which, without a word, I played on’.

(Chopin to Solange from Scotland, Johnston Castle, 9 September 1848)

This looks like a yarn, like something made up, yet it presents an admission that brooks no doubt. What is more, it confirms everything that George Sand wrote in her Majorcan memoirs about Chopin’s rather jittery imagination.

The Funeral March from the B flat minor Sonata carries a long and weighty history. It was written two years before the rest of the Sonata. Happily, Chopin placed the date on the extant manuscript of the trio of the March: 28 November 1837. That was the eve of the anniversary of the outbreak of the November Rising in Poland. In Paris, among the Polish émigré community, national and religious anniversaries were commemorated the day before the actual date. Chopin improvised at many such commemorative events. Given its date, the manuscript of the Funeral March appears to suggest patriotic origins to this work. Subsequently, however, there came the expedition to Majorca: the wonderful elation and the moments of dread that marked the sojourn in the charterhouse in Valldemosa. The experiences and hallucinations of the composer of the Funeral March were noted by George Sand and confirmed by the above-quoted fragment from a letter to Solange. Whatever else one may make of it, this was a time when death stared him straight in the eyes.

The B flat minor Sonata may be said to have ‘grown around the march’, which formed its point of departure and at the same time serves as its fulcrum and climax. The first two movements, the Allegro and Scherzo, head towards it. The Finale acts solely as an epilogue, the ‘chattering after the march’ that has gone before. The opening gesture – that exordium that stands at the head of the work – points to this moment, and to no other. In this musical drama, of a tragic character, the march represents the catastrophe: unavoidable, inevitable, announced by the opening grave and brought about by the last bars of the Scherzo.

One cannot imagine funeral music so simple, austere and concisely designed, and also so moving. Chopin casts it forth by degrees, heightening the expression step by step. The march itself is built from two themes: the first (principal) theme is filled with expression that ranges from condemnation to lament. The complementary theme, meanwhile, brings the musical expression of shouting and anger (bars (22)23–28). In this section of the march, the music proceeds in modo geometrico – along a straight line. Here, the power of fate has the shape and expression of an unwavering, implacable force.

The trio (in D flat major) brings a contrast that is so great… it is truly astonishing. Against the gloom, expression and irrevocable logic that characterise the march, Chopin sets a melody that is childishly simple, naive and defenceless. In the midst of the march, it serves both as a hint of irony and as a moment that is acutely touching (bars 31–38).

After the trio has faded away, the music of the march returns. Again it swells: from a whisper to a scream, from a silent lament to protest and revolt (bars 76–83).

Interpretations of the Funeral March comprise an abundant and diverse collection. Ferenc Liszt heard in it ‘the cortège of a nation in mourning, lamenting its own death’. Later interpretations speak of mainly personal expression. In both camps, the accent falls on the strength of the ‘heroic-tragic’ expression, on the dignity of the pathos, ‘transfused with pain’. If the march from the B flat minor Sonata is compared with anything, it is only to the Funeral March from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’. It has become – in addition – Chopin’s most famous work. At least, that is what one may surmise from the quantity of transcriptions: over five hundred transcriptions have been produced, for all kinds of ensembles and instruments, including brass band. Only Schumann was not impressed. More specifically, he did not like its incorporation into the dramatic structure of a sonata. In its place, he would most readily have seen ‘some adagio in D flat major’.

The seventy-five bars of music with which Chopin ends his Sonata – that ‘chattering after the march’ of the two hands in unison – caused no little consternation to Schumann, and indeed not just him. ‘The Sonata ends as it began’, he wrote, ‘with a riddle, like a Sphinx – with a mocking smile on its lips’.

Numerous attempts have been made to describe the form through which the music of the Presto Finale is expressed. Yet none of the a priori formal terms – such as rondo or sonata allegro – can be convincingly applied. What we have here is the undulation of musical material, moving away from the point of departure and then back again, close in its conception to an etude, tasked with exploiting the full chromatic universe of the piano.

More often than the form, observers have endeavoured to name and describe the character and expression of the peculiar moto perpetuo ‘imparted’ to these notes. Alfred Einstein called the Presto ‘ghostly’, and it has been ascribed a ‘catastrophic’ eloquence. Interpreters of a naturalist or expressionist persuasion have heard in the Sonata’s Finale the music of ‘wind blowing through a graveyard’. Worse than that, such an interpretation was perpetuated by a generation of expressionistically-inclined pianists. Schumann concludes unambiguously that ‘music it is not’.

The acknowledgement of the Sonata in B flat minor as a masterpiece of piano music, an essential embodiment of the idiom of Romantic music, did not come about overnight. Schumann tried to be fair. Though regarding the juxtaposition of four such incompatible movements as a sort of mockery of the genre’s principles, he did admit to listening to it with bated breath, from beginning to end. Ferenc Liszt – oddly for a composer so committed to ‘the music of the future’ – could not bring himself to consider the B flat minor Sonata a masterwork. It is Liszt who first expressed the opinion that became widely established for decades to come that Chopin, as a master of the piano miniature, had no feel for large forms, for sonata form. For Liszt, sonata form was beyond the compositional capacities and the mental predispositions of the composer of the nocturnes and mazurkas. Even the excellent Chopin monographer Frederick Niecks found it hard to reconcile his immediate impressions with his knowledge and conception of what a sonata ought to look like. ‘There is something gigantic in the work’, he wrote in 1888, ‘which, although it does not elevate and ennoble, being for the most part a purposeless fuming, impresses one powerfully’. Monographers and theorists of twentieth-century music found an explanation for those apparent contradictions. Hugo Leichtentritt discovered in the Sonata a far-reaching motivic unity among the ‘incompatible’ movements, which he deemed to be the ‘cyclic principle’ that would soon find its ultimate embodiment in the works of Liszt and Cesar Franck. Alfred Einstein stated quite plainly that the Sonata in B flat minor – comprising a ballade, a scherzo, a funeral march and an expressive etude – constituted a whole that was entirely logical and sensible… as a product par excellence Romantic, and so intentionally reconciling opposites.

The Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35, composed in the summer of 1839 at Nohant, was published in Paris and Leipzig in the spring of the following year. It was not furnished with any dedication. This is quite understandable: it would be difficult to dedicate a sonata with a funeral march to anyone. It was written under the roof of George Sand and under her tender and solicitous care. But, as we know, Chopin did not consider it suitable to ‘publicly’ offer Mrs Sand – through an editorial dedication – any of his works. He separated the intimate domain from the public domain quite radically. Nevertheless, it seems unquestionable that personal experiences were written into the music of the B flat minor Sonata, which arose around a Funeral March inspired by patriotic sentiment. It is heard and felt like some testimony to the extreme situation in which Chopin found himself at that time and in that place. The Sonata was written in the atmosphere of a passion newly manifest, but frozen by the threat of death. In the times of Mieczysław Karłowicz, it might have been called a ‘Sonata of love and death’. It became a ‘soliloquial’ utterance – an inward conversation about existential matters.

[i] George Sand, Story of My Life, group tr., ed. Thelma Jurgrau (New York, 1991), 1108

[ii] Ibid.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II


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