I am going to do something a little unusual for this posting. I am going to concentrate on one particular piece by Chopin and then two interpretations of it. I know this particular piece quite well because it was really the last complicated piece that I played when I studied the piano a thousand years ago. I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking, “how could anyone have written anything so beautiful?”.
The piece that we are concentrating on is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in b-flat minor, op. 31. Several of Chopin’s large works came in fours, though not composed consecutively: there are four Impromptus, four Ballades, and the same number of Scherzos. And they are all extraordinary. The B-flat-minor Scherzo, the second of that genre’s four, was composed in 1837 and bears the full imprint of the composer’s unique creative qualities. It is big and brawny, filled with magical harmonic coloration and huge pianistic flair. In the present piece, the very opening gesture informs us that a drama is about to unfold. Following a long-held B-flat, three soft and quick ascending notes lead to a longer note; this is immediately repeated. After a pause, a very loud B-flat is followed by a long-held chord and in turn by four emphatic chords. The opening four notes return (three-longs-and-a-short, a famous enough rhythmic combination by 1837), and they become a kind of key which throughout the piece opens the door to a floodgate of tension and drama, as well as some pulsating Chopin poetics.
The Second Scherzo is the favorite of the four. 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 (“tombé) 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* exalts, “What masterly writing, and it lies in the very heart of the piano! A hundred generations may not improve on these pages.”
*Ask any person in the street or any current tiller of the arts, “Who was James Gibbons Huneker?” and you are apt to draw a blank stare. But in his lifetime (1860-1921), Huneker was the most influential and widely read American critic, as highly regarded in Europe as he was in his own country.
Huneker’s principal love throughout his life was music, particularly the music of Chopin. He never gave up writing about music but he branched out early into theater, literature and the graphic arts. In all those fields he eventually became as influential as he was in music. In recent years we have seen music critics double in theater or ballet, but there has been no one of Huneker’s versatility and general authority.