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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

Strangely enough, the pieces in which Chopin strayed furthest beyond the boundaries of what his contemporaries thought normal and intelligible were his two mature sonatas (in B♭ minor, op. 35, published in 1840, and in B minor, op. 58, published in 1845), works belonging to the most traditional and classical genre to which Chopin applied himself. It was precisely his failure or unwillingness to reckon with the obligations of genre, the expectations to which title words give rise, that made his sonatas hard to understand. To recall Schumann's point, quoted in the previous chapter, “we are accustomed to judge a thing from the name it bears,” and, more pointedly, “we make certain demands upon a fantasy, others upon a sonata.” Later, confronted with Chopin's B♭ minor sonata, the same Schumann expressed his bemusement in one of his funniest paragraphs:

The idea of calling it a sonata is a caprice, if not a jest, for he has simply bound together four of his wildest children, to smuggle them under this name into a place to which they could not else have penetrated. Let us imagine some good country cantor visiting a musical city for the purpose of making artistic purchases. All the newest compositions are laid before him, but he does not care to know them; finally, some rogue hands him a sonata: “Ah, yes, that is something for me, a composition of the good old days,” says he delighted, and buys it at once. At home he takes up the piece, and I am much mistaken if he does not vow, by every musical divinity, that this is no sonata style but rank blasphemy, even before he has painfully ground out the first page at the keyboard. But Chopin has achieved his goal: he has penetrated into the cantor's residence; and who knows whether, in years to come, in the same dwelling there may not be born some romantic grandson who some day will dust off the sonata, play it, and think to himself, “This man was no fool!”21

Schumann was exaggerating. The sonata is not as weird as all that. It has a first movement that is recognizably in sonata form, even if the recapitulation of the first theme (and with it, the dramatic double return) has been elided out. It has a scherzo replete with trio. The famous (to Schumann, repellent) slow movement is cast, just like the one in Beethoven's Eroica, as a Marche funèbre, a funeral march.

The Chopinesque Sublime

ex. 7-11 Frédéric Chopin, Sonata in B-flat minor, IV

The finale, a presto to be played sotto voce throughout, still gives pause, however (Ex. 7-11). It is indeed a wild child, unique and well-nigh indescribable: a moto perpetuo, but for the last chord all in octaves (that is, without harmony), all spun out of a six-note motive but without literal repetitions except for an ironically formal recapitulation as if to take the place of the one missing from the first movement. Bach might have called it a prelude (no wonder it comes at the end!). It elicited from Schumann a virtual accusation of sadism:

That which in the last movement is given to us under the name “finale” resembles mockery more than any kind of music. Yet we must confess that even from this joyless, unmelodious movement an original and terrifying spirit breathes on us which holds down with mailed fist everything that seeks to resist, so that we listen fascinated and uncomplaining to the end—though not to praise; for this is not music.22

On the contrary, Chopin must have taken this as the very highest praise (and so, of course, Schumann must have intended, master of irony that he was). But what should seem by now both striking and characteristic is the way in which the music paradoxically achieves its extreme modernity by way of archaism. Except for the chromatic and dissonant implied harmony, the piece that so astounded and even offended nineteenth-century musicians would have struck their early eighteenth-century counterparts (who encountered unaccompanied preludes every day) as downright conventional, at least in appearance.


(21) Schumann, On Music and Musicians, p. 140.

(22) Ibid., p. 142.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007009.xml