CHOPIN Frédéric, Four Scherzos
Chopin’s Scherzos were composed between the mid-1830s and 1843. Scherzo means ‘jest’ or ‘joke’ and earlier composers such as Haydn and Beethoven often invested scherzo movements with playful elements. But Chopin took the form in a quite different direction prompting Robert Schumann to ask about the B minor Scherzo, Op.20: ‘How is “gravity” to clothe itself when “jest” goes about in such dark veils?’ Certainly, the mood of the B minor Scherzo (published in 1835) is sombre and sinister, the outer sections full of suspense and wildness. Only in the central section (in B major) is there any sense of repose.
The B flat minor Scherzo, Op.31 (1837), was likened by Schumann to Byron’s poetry, ‘overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.’ Chopin himself is said to have compared the hushed opening to a question, the explosive second phrase providing the answer, but the piece as a whole is remarkably intense and unified, its ideas seeming to grow from one to the next to create a remarkable inner coherence.
His approach in the C sharp minor Scherzo, Op.39 (1838–9) is rather different, depending for its effectiveness on the sharp contrasts and surprising juxtapositions between the rapid octaves at the opening and the hymn-like second theme and the exquisite tumbling cascades with which it is decorated. The mood at the close is dazzling and defiant.
The E major Scherzo, Op.54 (1843), is the one which perhaps most clearly matches the expectations of its title: there is a certain playfulness and elegance in a work that was composed tandem with the Fourth Ballade and the Polonaise in A flat, Op.53. But in spite of its apparent conformity with the title, this is late Chopin and the music is full of innovation, whether in the exploration of piano textures or Chopin’s increasingly rich harmonic palate. More introspective than its predecessors, it is also a work which seems tinged with sadness as well as mercurial brilliance.
© Nigel Simeone