Chopin’s four Scherzi are currently in my repertoire, each written at an interesting stage in the composer’s life. The genial fourth scherzo, Op 54, was composed during a summer spent at Nohant with Aurore Dudevant, better known as the writer George Sand; the third scherzo, again with George Sand present, was composed during the winter months of 1838-1839 in a deserted monastery on the island of Majorca. The confident second scherzo, Op 31 , dates from 1837 in Paris before George Sand was a part of Chopin’s life, and likewise the first Scherzo Op 20 pre-dates their relationship. I love them all, and they are very satisfying to perform as a set, each one with its own character. But I’ll admit to a penchant for the first scherzo, as it was the first ‘big’ piece of Chopin which I learnt as a teenager. And also, its beginnings are shrouded in mystery, so I find it intriguing.
It was published in 1835 when Chopin was established in Paris, having arrived there in 1831. The dedicatee, Thomas Albrecht, was attaché to the Saxon diplomatic mission in Paris. But when and where was it composed? Like many early published works, it was written in advance of Chopin’s arrival and establishment as one of the French capital’s leading pianists. Publications followed Chopin’s success, in London, Paris and Leipzig, although interestingly Chopin’s Trio Op 9 was first published in London in 1830.
It has been suggested that the first scherzo might date from 1830-1831. November 2 1830 marks the date of Chopin’s departure from Warsaw – never to return. Later that month, the November Uprising erupted, an armed rebellion against Russian forces. Chopin learnt of this via letter; has friend Titus, who was travelling with him, turned back to Warsaw. Chopin travelled on alone, spending Christmas in Vienna, wandering around St Stephen’s Cathedral (below). One wonders if that influenced the choice of a Polish Christmas carol as the basis for the peaceful central section. The open of the Scherzo is shocking – literally – two unexpected loud chords, like an unprovoked slap in the face, before the RH hurriedly claws it’s way up the piano in a repeated frenzy, the LH trying to check and restrain its impetuosity. Interludes of a more rhetorical nature, full of questioning and despair, alternate with the headlong rush, until all is calmed by the central section. But those two chords break in again and the frenzy is resumed. A final coda builds to a shattering climax, with an agonised chord pounded repeatedly before a chromatic scale rips up the piano to the final, emphatic chords.
I’m in Warsaw as I write, soaking up Polish culture and immersing myself in Chopin’s life and times. More anon.