Chopin, Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58

January 12, 2014

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58, 1844

Frédéric Chopin was a perfect miracle for the flowering of art music for the solo piano. His life almost perfectly coincides with the perfection of the instrument and its universal adoption as the solo instrument par excellence. But unlike the numerous performers and composers brandishing thundering feats of technical virtuosity that pushed the instrument and performer to their physical limits, Chopin brought only pure musical expression employing virtuosity and technique as means to an artistic end. With a fresh, novel approach to the piano, Chopin astonished and confounded the musicians of his day, essentially revealing a whole new domain of keyboard music uniquely his own becoming known as the "poet of the piano."

While he composed almost exclusively for the piano, his innovations were not merely pianistic. Chopin expanded harmony, chromaticisim, dissonance, rubato (expressive distortions of tempo), texture and color that had a lasting impact throughout 19th century. With extensive use of Polish folk and dance music (the mazurkas and polonaises), he is often regarded as the first Nationalist. With perfection of deeply expressive "miniature" character pieces (the prelude, nocturnes and ballads), he is often regarded as the greatest Romanticist. And in the age of pedagogic exercises and training etudes, he stands first and foremost a composer of music with his "studies" emerging as successful musical compositions regardless of their technical aims. When Chopin made his debut in Paris in 1831 at the age of 21, as both pianist and composer, he was regarded as a mature artist along with a nearly total absence of criticism. And so it remained for the rest of his short life. To this day, his complete oeuvre remains in the repertoire defying the vicissitudes of style and fashion. Indeed, for the solo piano, Chopin is the most frequently played and popular composer forming the basis and the sine qua non of the canon.

Chopin did not think much of the Romantic barnstormers of the 19th century piano. He didn't like the music of Schumann or Mendelssohn and he thought Liszt to be vulgar. Nor did he care for the histrionics of Beethoven. Chopin's sensibility was refined, aristocratic, poised and nuanced. He loved Mozart and Bach most of all. It is surprising, therefore, that his music is so free and improvisational, largely eschewing classical forms and learned counterpoint. But amidst his hundreds of "character pieces", Chopin did compose three multi-movement piano sonatas. The first is largely regarded as a student work. The second in B-flat minor is famous for its slow movement funeral march. His last in B-minor is often regarded as his finest and is in many ways his most classical.

Composed in the summer and fall of 1844 and among his last compositions, the Sonata in B-minor, Op. 58 comprises four movements in a relatively traditional plan. The first movement is in sonata-allegro form featuring two themes of perfect contrast. The first is dark with heavy chords, falling lines and a minor key. The second is lyrical and bright in a major key featuring melody more than rhythm. Its songful character and atmospheric figurations make it instantly recognizable as Chopin's musical poetry. A powerfully dense and muscular development dwells on the first theme and the recapitulation surprisingly begins with the second lyrical theme leaving the movement in a major key at its conclusion. The second movement is a fleet scherzo and trio racing by in a mere few movements. A quick skittering outer theme contrasts with an inner trio of warmth in a more relaxed tempo.

The third movement Largo has often been described as the most profound movement in the sonata because of its inexpressible and nearly transcendent beauty. An initial, dramatic flourish gives way to an intimate song gently driven by a dotted rhythm and a nostalgic turn of phrase. This elegant music frames an expansive section of majestic poise, longing and melancholy. With rippling figurations like a Bach prelude and characteristically poignant harmonic progressions, this is Chopin's inimitable art, simple, serene and sublime.

The finale restores the key of B minor with a driving 6/8 rhythm and a theme that recurs thrice in a rondo form. Between the refrains of almost Schubertian panic there are contrasting episodes of triumph. A wild coda finally banishes the darkness concluding the sonata, as in the first movement, in a radiance of B major.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.