COMPOSITIONS compositions

Scherzo in B minor, incypit

Genre: Scherzo

Key: B minor

Opus/WN: Op. 20

Creation date: 1.wersja: 1831 wersja ostateczna: 1834

Acc. to Paderewski: V/1

Acc. to Turło: 197

Instruments: piano

Composition dedicated to:

Thomas Albrecht


When did Chopin write his first Scherzo? When did it occur, this ‘fulminating’ at the piano, this documenting of an eruption of emotion stronger than anything he had ever expressed? When did he conceive of a work that seems to anticipate that formula for a well-constructed drama, attributed to Tolstoy: start fortissimo, then just carry on crescendo to the end? Did Chopin write these bars around the turn of 1831 in Vienna, in an atmosphere of acute solitude, when he confessed to one of his Warsaw friends: ‘if I could, I would move all the tones that my blind, furious, unfettered feelings would incite’? Or a couple of years later, in Paris, when in white gloves and brillant mood, ‘pulled from all sides’, as he related to another of his friends, he entered the foremost society, since thence, as he wrote, ‘apparently issues good taste; at once you possess great talent if […] the Princess de Vaudemont was protecting you’?

The manuscript of the B minor Scherzo has not come down to us. There is no trace in any correspondence of the date or circumstances of the work’s composition. We know only that in 1833 the Scherzo was already in existence, and in February 1835 it was published by Schlesinger of Paris, then a month later by Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig. Incidentally, the third publisher, the London firm of Wessel, published the Scherzo a little later, furnishing the cover of the edition – as was its wont – with its own title, intended to stir up interest: Le banquet infernal.

So the moment when this work was composed – or at least when it was conceived – remains open to interpretation, based on a greater or lesser degree of probability. A tradition born among the composer’s family and friends and perpetuated by the first monographers links the Scherzo not with Paris, but with Vienna, as that forms a more convincing picture. The first Christmas that Chopin had spent far from home, in a quandary, extremely anxious about his loved ones and about the fate of events unfolding back home; and a work in which music marked by the utmost perturbation and keen agitation is suddenly interrupted by the soft echo of a fireside carol.

In Chopin’s letters from that time spent in Vienna, certain motifs recur obsessively: ‘I curse the moment I left… In the salon I pretend to be calm, but on returning home I fulminate at the piano… I return, play, cry, laugh, go to bed, put out the light and dream always of you… Everything I’ve seen thus far abroad seems to me […] unbearable and only makes me long for home, for those blissful moments which I couldn’t appreciate… It seems like a dream, a stupor, that I’m with you – and what I hear is just a dream’.

One could hardly conceive of a greater concurrence between the emotion poured into his letters and the expression of the work at hand. Chopin called it a scherzo. Today, that does not surprise us. Ever since his four works given that name came into existence, it has been hard to imagine a scherzo that might possess a different character. But in those days? A scherzo meant jest. It was supposed to make people laugh and have fun, to create a good mood. In the symphony and the sonata, it inherited the place left by the minuet, as well as its triple metre and terpsichorean tendencies. Though Beethoven had already shown that a scherzo’s humour could have sharp, angular features, it was Chopin who crossed the mark. Schumann, writing his review of the B minor Scherzo (highly favourable, one might add), enquired rhetorically: ‘How should gravity array itself when jest is already darkly robed?’

The predatory-fanatical, at times downright demonic, character of the scherzo was a Romantic innovation. Suffice it to recall Berlioz’s ‘Songe d’une nuit de sabbat’, from the Symphonie fantastique, or, from another field, Goya’s Caprichos or Fuseli’s The Nightmare. And that is the path taken by Chopin, who established for his scherzos a specific principle concerning the dramatic structure of works in that genre. All four of his scherzos, though each is expressed in a form that differs in detail, can be reduced to a common denominator. They are linked by the idea of ‘reprise form’, and so form in which – as in a dance with trio or a da capo aria – the music of the beginning returns, identical or more or less transformed, to close the work. The peculiarity of Chopin’s scherzos lies in the fact that between the music of that framework (and so the scherzo itself) and the music of the interior (the traditional trio) there is a contrast that is so fundamental that it resembles the collision of two worlds. The inner world brings anxiety and menace, whilst the outer world offers us refuge. It transports us to a realm of recollection and dreams.

In the B minor Scherzo, that hostile framework is filled by music which Chopin defined – rather euphemistically – with the words presto con fuoco: fast and fiery. It is wild and strange. It runs the length and breadth of the keyboard, unconstrained, as if at odds with itself. Discontinuous, full of sharp, unexpected accents. Interpreters are put in mind of a ‘furious storm of motives’ (Jan Kleczyński), ‘tongues of flame bursting upwards’ (Hugo Leichtentritt), ‘a nerve-fraying mood’ (Zdzisław Jachimecki), presaged by those two chords of the preface, ‘two shattering cries at the top and the bottom of the keyboard’, as one monographer put it (bars 1–24). Then all at once, the frenzied dash is halted. Just for a moment, different music takes over. A rubato of chords and octaves which first struggle with one another and then fall quiet in anticipation (bars 44–64). And the next phase of wild hurtling begins (the development of motives exposed earlier): the agitation (agitato), articulated in a voice that at times is softened (sotto voce), thereby becomes all the more remarkable (bars 69–76).

Again the music is becalmed in expectation, and we are engulfed in the unrepeatable and unforgettable aura of a Christmas carol – like a voice from another world. The lullaby carol ‘Lulajże Jezuniu’ [Hush little Jesus] is summoned forth, by the strength of recollection, from deep silence and sung with the utmost simplicity, in a luminous B major, accompanied by a discreet ostinato, which reinforces the peace and calm of a Christmas Eve night. And immediately afterwards a reaction. An original song, in response to the carol. A melody bursting with lyricism swells in an almost beseeching gesture and then falls (bars 320–328 (329)). The carol subsequently returns several times, entwined in that original song. The sixth time around, it is brutally broken off by a return to reality (bars 381–392).

The reprise ensues: a return to music that is fraught, wild, incredible, demonic (it has been variously termed), leading to an unforgettable finale, an explosion of raging passion and revolt, to the ninefold striking of a chord, the unprecedented dissonance of which is hard to define, and which was presaged – in a gesture of opening – by the B minor Scherzo’s first two chords.

Barely a couple of weeks after the publication of the Scherzo in B minor, some unidentified critic gave an account of it in the Gazette musicale de Paris of 22 March 1835: ‘the scherzo is of a completely new kind, and it seems to us that it offers, to a high degree, the impression of the author’s intimate sensations’.

The Scherzo – distinguished by its carol lullaby – was dedicated to a particular person at a particular moment in time. Chopin’s friendly gesture was extended to Thomas Albrecht, an attaché with the Saxon diplomatic mission in Paris. He would appear intermittently in Chopin’s life up to the very end, on the Place Vendôme. At this particular moment, however, Chopin adopts a special role, as godfather to Albrecht’s baby daughter, Teresa.

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


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