Skip to page content

Music dictionaries tell us, in part, that a scherzo is a piece in fast three-quarter time, and is distinguished by vigor, abruptness of thought, and a distinct element of playfulness and humor. The Italian dictionary defines the word as a joke or a jest. Historically, the classical scherzo was the creation of Beethoven, who transformed the gentle and mild minuet into a vibrant and volatile dance movement that often totally eschews the good manners of its progenitors. With the scherzo dynamism of Beethoven as their example, it is no wonder that 19th-century composers took the view of this erstwhile dance as a wild and often diabolical thing. Chopin certainly did just that in the first three of his four scherzos, creating expansive, dramatic pieces that mock their title. (The fourth Scherzo, in E major, is the exception, being boundingly light-hearted, even skittish, in direct contrast to its three siblings.)

With an anger bordering on violence that begins with the two opening, long-held dissonant chords and continues with the seething agitation of the main idea, the Scherzo in B minor of 1832 loses some of its promised strength through repetition. Welcome contrast, however, is provided by a song-like middle section whose main melody, derived from a Polish Christmas carol, is in the inner voice and surrounded by a wide-spaced rocking figure. The piece's two opening chords eventually break into the serenity, and after repetitions of the main material, a portentous chord hammered repeatedly and violently leads to a brilliant and crashing close.