COMPOSITIONS compositions


The last work inspired by Majorca and the atmosphere of Valldemossa was the Scherzo in C sharp minor. It was there that the Scherzo was certainly sketched (in January 1839, Chopin offered it to Pleyel for publication), though it was not completed until the spring, in Marseilles. Work on the manuscript was interrupted by a strong recurrence of his illness. From the very first bars, questions or cries are hurled into an empty, hollow space – presto con fuoco. And hot on their heels come the pungent, robust motives of the principal theme of the Scherzo, played fortissimo and risoluto in double octaves (bars 25–56).

The music is given over to a wild frenzy, mysteriously becalmed, then erupting a moment later with a return of the aggressive octaves. And then… the tempo slows, the music softens. Like a voice from another realm comes the focussed, austere music of a chorale, interspersed with airy passages of beguiling sonorities (bars 152–191).

The chorale returns many times over, and with it those airy garlands of sound. The octaves theme also returns. And this appears to be a reprise announcing an imminent finale. But Chopin did not cast his Scherzo from that simplest of moulds. Again the chorale-filled trio returns. As its song is reprised, it slips from the hard E major into the gentle, but sad and mysterious (uttered sotto voce), E minor (bars 494–514). This altered theme concludes with question marks, imbued with mystery and expectation, soaring upwards in the utmost silence (bars 526–539). And we have the most beautiful moment in the whole of the Scherzo: the apotheosis of the chorale. Through a sequence of chords that progress calmly upwards (now in C sharp major), the music attains ecstasy (bars 542–567).

The finale is played out in two parts. The run to the finish is commenced by passages that surge up the keyboard, before the whole work ends with a series of chords that bring a distinct gesture of closure in a victorious key, transformed from C sharp minor to C sharp major (bars 628–649).

Published as opus 39, the Scherzo in C sharp minor was dedicated to Adolf Gutmann. He was one of Chopin’s favourite pupils, much to the indignation and envy of others, since – in their opinion – he was not exactly a shining talent. Chopin esteemed him – oddly, perhaps– for his powerful striking. Wilhelm von Lenz rather spitefully recalled that his colleague impressed Chopin with his ‘robust health’ and ‘herculean frame’.[i] In relation to the C sharp minor Scherzo, Lenz comments that ‘no left hand can take the chord in the bass (sixth measure, d sharp, f sharp, g, d sharp, f sharp), least of all Chopin’s hand, which arpeggio’d over the easy-running, narrow-keyed Pleyel. Only Gutmann could “knock a hole in a table” with that chord!’.[ii] Chopin also entrusted to Gutmann the first performance of the Scherzo in the company of friends. Lenz supposes that he did so in order to show the powerful sound this work needs. But in the ‘Majorcan’ concerto that Chopin gave in February 1841 at the Salle Pleyel, he played the Scherzo himself.

[i] Wilhelm von Lenz, The Great Piano Virtuosos of Our Time, tr. Madeleine R. Baker (New York, 1899), 69.

[ii] Ibid, 70.

Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
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Kevin Kenner

Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39 Op. 39
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