Four Scherzos

Chopin composed four of his greatest creations under the title Scherzo, a word that means “a joke.” Was Chopin being ironic? Schumann was baffled; when reviewing the B minor Scherzo, he asked, “How are seriousness and gravity to be clothed if jest is to go about in such dark-colored garments?”. The title seems appropriate only for No.4.The Scherzos are epics among Chopin’s works, and their instrumental brilliance has made them staples of the concert hall; each of them demands a highly finished technique.

Scherzo No.1 in B minor, Op. 20:
The First Scherzo was composed most likely in 1834, and first published in 1835. Later, when it was issued in England under the title The Infernal Banquet, Chopin, always a purist and opposed to any literary or pictorial allusions, had a fit. The opening must have shocked his contemporaries. Indeed, its almost repellent realism still astonishes. Niecks asks, “Is this not like a shriek of despair?” The material is feverishly restless and tragic in nature. The middle section, marked Molto piu lento, is based on a Polish Christmas carol, “Sleep, Jesus Sleep” (one of Chopin’s few uses of actual folk material). The section is worked out in the dreamiest manner until the Scherzo’s opening chord interrupts the dream. The first section, which is then repeated, ends in a coda of barbaric splendor, which closes with furious chromatic scales.

Scherzo No.2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31:
The Second Scherzo is the favorite. Schumann compared it to a Byronic poem, “so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.” According to Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Chopin, the composer said that the renowned sotto voce opening was a question and the second phrase the answer: “For Chopin it was never questioning enough, never soft enough, never vaulted (tombe) enough. It must be a charnel-house.” The melody, marked “con anima,” is repeated three times during the lengthy proceedings, the last time bringing us to the coda in a magnificent key change. The gorgeous melody overlies a six-note-per-measure left-hand accompaniment of exceeding richness. The trio, filled with longing, takes on a pianistic complexity. Huneker exults, “What masterly writing, and it lies in the very heart of the piano! A hundred generations may not improve on these pages.

Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39:
The Third Scherzo opens with an almost Lisztian introduction, leading to a subject in octaves of pent-up energy. The key changes to D-flat major, with a choralelike subject, interspersed with delicate falling arpeggios. Louis Kentner thinks of it as “a Wagnerian melody of astonishing beauty, recalling the sound of tubas, harps and all the apocalyptic orchestra of Valhalla.” This is the most terse, ironic, and tightly constructed of the four scherzos, with an almost Beethovenian grandeur. The finger-bursting coda rises to emotional HEIGHTs, bringing the score to a rhetorical ending.

Scherzo No.4 in E major, Op. 54:
An ethereal composition bathed in light, which ripples over the expanse of the keyboard. It is Chopin in a blessed moment, improvising and happy. His nerves are calm, and his deadly disease in check. Even the long trio in E minor, of seraphic lyric beauty, has no sign of morbidezza. The passagework is elegant; the coda is a picture of pastel beauty.

Four Scherzos:

  • ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
  • CHERKASSKY: Tudor (CD)
  • DARRE: Vanguard
  • FREIRE: Teldec
  • KATSARIS: Teldec (CD)
  • RICHTER: CBS/Melodiya
  • RUBINSTEIN: RCA (CD); (1932) Pearl (CD)

Notable single Scherzos:

  • AX (Nos. 2 & 4): RCA
  • BARERE (No.3): Vanguard
  • CLIBURN (No.2): RCA
  • HOROWITZ (No.1): CBS
  • NOVAES (No.3): Vox
  • ZIMERMAN (No.4): DG