“Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I’ve got only the keyboard in my poor head,” lamented Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). We should all be so lucky as to have such a keyboard in our own poor heads. Nobody mattered more to the history of the instrument than Chopin; nobody changed piano writing as much; nobody more enhanced the stature of the instrument, just then coming into its maturity.
Nor was Chopin’s imagination restricted to what could be done with ten fingers on a keyboard. He was among music’s supreme harmonists, a composer who rethought the very function of chords and in so doing imbued Romantic music with unprecedented harmonic color. He brought the lyricism of bel canto opera to an instrument that creates its sounds via whacking a high-tension string with a hammer, and obliged pianists to rethink their entire approach to the instrument in order to play his music successfully.
And yet this most quietly radical of pianists originally aspired to the bread-and-circuses life of travelling virtuosi, where pretentious bombast ruled the roost and artistry was an inhibiting encumbrance. He even went so far as to consider studying with the spectacularly superficial Friedrich Kalkbrenner who could have ruined the suggestible young Pole had not horrified parents and teachers intervened.
So Chopin backed off that particular cliff and headed towards his true destiny. His piano compositions are mostly short, save three sonatas and a few sets of variations, but each encompasses its own unique and fully-realized cosmos. Chopin never phoned it in.
It took about a century for the late Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Opus 61 to gain any traction with pianists or audiences. Perhaps its blend of nocturne-like dreamscape and polonaise rhythms was confusing, as was its enigmatic harmonic language. Even its author had a bit of trouble wrapping his mind around his own work: “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call,” he said. As a fantasy the piece progresses in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, darting about from one idea to another; as a polonaise it partakes of the heroic and militant, however briefly. It has engendered a goodly collection of fanciful explanations, almost inevitable under the circumstances, such as Franz Liszt’s notion of the work as being like “somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” According to another critic, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” But in time the work has prevailed and, thanks to superlative performances over the past half-century, has taken its place as one of the more challenging, enigmatic, and rewarding works of the Romantic keyboard literature.
No such controversy churns around the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54, but in no way is this delectably scintillating work of 1842 a lightweight entry in Chopin’s catalog. He was a happy man at the time; his health was (temporarily) restored and he was enjoying summers at George Sand’s country home. Written in the usual rondo-like form, in which a high-spirited reprise is contrasted with episodes, the E major Scherzo avoids darkness in favor of light, prefers sparkle over somberness, and all in all exudes optimism.—Scott Foglesong
Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.
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