Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 ("Funeral March")
Chopin is regarded primarily as a peerless miniaturist, unchallenged for the glories of his creations in small forms – preludes, etudes, mazurkas, nocturnes, etc. But although supreme as a miniaturist, Chopin also scaled the heights in larger forms. It was, in fact, the composer’s three-movement F-minor Piano Concerto, which he played in his Paris debut in 1832, that proved to be a major breakthrough in his fledgling career – he was 22 at the time. Reporting on the performance, the keenly perceptive and influential critic (yes, some critics are influential) François-Joseph Fétis wrote, “Here is a young man who, giving way to his natural leanings and taking no model, has found, if not a way of reviving piano music completely, at least some of what has so long been vainly sought, namely, an abundance of original ideas of which the type is nowhere to be found. That is not to say that M. Chopin is gifted with the power of a Beethoven,” Fétis assures, “or that one finds in his music the vitality of conception that is so remarkable in that great man. Beethoven has composed music for the piano, but here I am speaking of music for pianists, and in this realm I find, in the inspirations of M. Chopin, indications of a change of form that may in the future exercise considerable influence on this branch of art.”
We know that Chopin’s inspirations profoundly affected not only the course of pianism, but also the course of music itself. In the realm of keyboard innovation, his piano style fully exploited the singing quality of the instrument and embodied a whole new world of sonorities resulting from such factors as the unique wide-spread figures that accompanied his endlessly beautiful, long-breathed melodies and, importantly, the fanciful, exquisite filigrees that are not just ornamental but become organic elements. Also, his use of the sustaining pedal greatly amplified the distinctive sonority he sought, just as the judiciously placed slowing down or acceleration of tempo (rubato) he employed contributed enormously to a poetic ambiance. (Imagine if you will piano music by Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, et al., without Chopin.) In the realm of music itself, Chopin’s harmonic advancements and, of prime importance, his inspired use of chromaticism, guided virtually all composers who came after him. (Imagine Wagner without Chopin.)
All of Chopin’s works, large and small, are endowed with the above-mentioned qualities; and there are enough of the large ones to eliminate the pigeonholing to which he has been subjected. There are two concertos as well as other pieces for piano and orchestra; several chamber works, all with piano; and among the large solo works, four ballades, the same number of scherzos; the Fantasie; many polonaises; and three sonatas for piano, the first an early work from 1828, the second, the one on this program, written in 1839, and the last in 1844.
Not all of Chopin’s extended works have been dealt with kindly. Take the B-flat-minor Sonata, for example. No less than Robert Schumann, who had welcomed Chopin with the effusive greeting, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” said this about the present work: “The idea of calling it a sonata is a caprice, if not a jest, for he has simply bound together four of his most reckless children, thus under his name smuggling them into a place into which they could not else have penetrated.” One wonders if Schumann, always given to strong emotional responses, knew that the Sonata’s third movement, the Funeral March, was composed first, in 1837, and that it apparently was the motivating force for the other three movements. In any case, the music surrounding the pivotal March precedes and follows it with what seems inevitable dramatic rightness.
The Sonata opens with four attention-grabbing slow measures, the first two descending notes of which are to be very important in the development section. The fast, galloping main theme that follows propels us into a scene of extreme agitation, then of contrasting repose by way of the lyric second theme. In the development Chopin deals primarily with the main galloping theme, but he also ingeniously brings in the introduction’s crucial descending interval, at first gently in the right hand, then forcefully in the left hand. Having developed the main theme at length, Chopin wisely begins the recapitulation with the lyric second theme, binding the movement together at the end by alluding to the main theme in the bass while the treble ascends with chordal thrust to a B-flat-major cadence.
The second movement Scherzo is, in its vitally dramatic main section, compounded of biting octaves, leaping chords, hazardous double notes and, withal, an atmosphere of brilliance under fire. The middle section is a major-key jewel in a Chopin crown studded with such invaluable gems. After a repeat of the main material, Chopin makes a miracle by bringing back a phrase of the lyric theme, with the result that the aggressiveness of the main theme, which was in E-flat minor, is lovingly warmed by this G-flat-major ending.
The Funeral March third movement is all too familiar to require description, and for some, to take seriously because of the kinds of unfortunate uses (cartoon and comedic) to which it has been subjected. But it is powerfully tragic music that receives consolation from a severely simple dry-eyed melody at midpoint. And it follows the Scherzo’s major-key ending with marvelous dramatic logic, just as the swirling, other-worldly wildness of the finale, all one sweeping thrust of single notes in each hand an octave apart, follows it as a breathtaking, technically formidable stroke of genius.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.