October 2013

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, 3rd Movement

by Frédéric François Chopin

Frédéric François Chopin (pronounced FREH-deh-REEK fran-SWAH show-PAN) was born near Warsaw, Poland in 1810. He was born to a Polish mother (thus, the name "Frédéric") and a French father (thus, the name "François"). Chopin is one of the most recognized names in piano music. All of his compositions include the piano in some capacity. Most are solo works (sonatas, waltzes, études, etc.). He died young (39), but his work is immortal.

Around 1830, Chopin left Poland and lived in Paris, France. Here, he would live out the rest of his days. He got to know other musicians, like Franz Liszt (another amazing pianist and composer of that time period) and Robert Schumann (another great composer of the time). Chopin was well known as a performer, composer and piano teacher. He and Liszt were arguably the best pianists of the time period.

In 1839, Chopin composed one of his most well-known works: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor. Very few people know that work by its name, though. And, in fact, most people only know the third movement of this four-movement piece. The famous third movement is marked Marche funèbre: Lento or "Funeral March at a slow tempo". Most people know this piece as, simply, "Chopin's Funeral March" (or even just "Funeral March").

This haunting melody would become synonymous with death. In fact, this movement has been played at the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, and many Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev. Perhaps even more fitting, it was played at Chopin's own burial.

The tune was popularized in movies, radio, television, and cartoons. Any time death or impending doom was approaching, one often heard this melody in the background.

The Sonata, as I mentioned, has four movements:

  1. Grave; Doppio movimento ("very slow, followed by 'double movement' or twice as fast")
  2. Scherzo ("playful, fast")
  3. Marche funèbre: Lento ("Funeral March at a slow tempo")
  4. Finale: Presto ("Last movement, extremely fast")

We'll just listen to the famous third movement for this assignment.

This piece seems to have gotten some inspiration from some of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. Some have criticized this work of being disconnected, or lacking a central theme. Robert Schumann suggested that Chopin "simply bound together four of his most unruly children". Nevertheless, this piece (and most notably, the third movement) live on.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

I don't know this for certain, but it's a good guess that I first heard this piece as part of a Looney Tunes cartoon. It was used plentifully there, and I quite regularly watched them. I remember being fascinated by this piece at a very early age. I knew the piece's name (as "Funeral March") pretty early (I'm going to guess around age 7 or 8).

We might have had a recording of it, but I don't remember for certain, and I certainly don't remember who performed (Vladimir Horowitz would probably be a fair guess).

We had the sheet music for this piece in the maroon piano book we had. I think I was about 14 when I attempted to learn it. I never learned the whole movement (it's a challenging piece).


So here it is, for your Halloween pleasure: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor (3rd movement) by Chopin. Enjoy!

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (3rd movement) by Frédéric François Chopin (9:31)

For those interested, this recording was performed by André Watts.

Jon's Interpretation:

As I mentioned, I was fascinated by this piece at a very young age. It was so dark and threatening, but then, as I got to know the piece, it has some beautiful and peaceful happy portions as well.

There's a great deal of somber and peaceful emotions captivated in this movement. To play the piece is surprisingly difficult. And there are some wonderful, rich chords that were typical of mid-to-late 19th century Romantic-era music. This piece can still give me chills (in a good way).

Extra Credit:

Here's a scan of the autograph score (the handwritten score penned by Chopin himself).

Score for Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor by Frédéric François Chopin

For those who would like to hear the other movements (which are all shorter than the third), here they are (also performed by André Watts):

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (1st movement) by Frédéric François Chopin (8:04)

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (2nd movement) by Frédéric François Chopin (5:37)

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor (4th movement) by Frédéric François Chopin (1:25)

And now, to keep with tradition, I've found a recent Simpsons episode that incorporates this month's piece. In "Dark Knight Court" (Season 24, Episode 16, first aired March 17, 2013), Bart is accused of a prank he didn't pull, and the entire town is mad at him. And what piece do we hear the Springfield Elementary Band performing to portray the town's feelings?