Frederic Chopin: The Funeral March Story December 10 2021
Chopin at the house of Prince Radzivill in Posen
Frédéric Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, was composed between the years 1837 and 1839. The work was completed around 1839 while Chopin was living in George Sand's manor in the French town of Nohant. A year later in 1840, the piece was published in the cities of London, Leipzig, and of course, Paris.
This sonata stands out as a particularly famous piece due to its third movement which is cast in the form of a funeral march. This movement has become so popular that the whole work itself is usually known as The Funeral March Sonata.
The piece holds a special place in the romantic sonata repertoire as an extraordinarily difficult work and one of the few sonatas composed by Chopin. Over the course of his life, he only composed three solo piano sonatas which eventually saw print, the first sonata Op.4 in C minor which was published posthumously, the funeral march sonata, and the legendary third sonata in B minor Op.58 which is considered by many to be the composer’s single greatest solo piano work and one of the greatest piano sonatas of the entire literature.
[Photo] A portrait of Frederic Chopin - Daguerrotype from 1849
During the romantic era, solo piano sonatas became a much less common occurrence than they were in the classical period. While Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven wrote numerous works in the genre, romantic composers rarely wrote more than a handful of them each. Franz Liszt produced a single massive work, Chopin wrote three but only two in his mature style, Schumann wrote three and Brahms the same.
The diminution of the sonata genre’s popularity can be attributed to the change in aesthetic paradigm which saw composers focus much more on content and expressivity than on the classical values of order, balance and form. This particular sonata perfectly encapsulates the balance between both stances which Chopin so carefully handled across his life.
Following the premiere and successive publications, the work quickly became popular. The initial reception of the sonata was divided between the general public who generally praised it and the critics who did not really know what to make of it. Amongst the most ardent critics, there was Robert Schumann who heavily condemned Chopin for the piece’s apparent lack of formal and stylistic cohesion and the remarkable oddity of the final movement. He also expressed a general disdain for the famous funeral march that at the time was already a massively famous piece that was usually performed as a standalone work.
Chopin's left hand, after a moulding by Clesinger
COMPOSITION AND ANTECEDENTS
The sonata has an important antecedent in Beethoven’s twelfth piano sonata Op.26 in A flat major due to it containing an extremely similar plan. Both pieces have four movements and the second and third are a scherzo and a funeral march respectively. Furthermore, there exists vast documentation showing that Chopin considered the Op.26 sonata his favorite Beethoven work and that it was a piece which he taught extensively to most of his students.
Chopin usually composed several works at the same time therefore, having been composed between the years 1837 and 1839, the second piano sonata was contemporary to other masterpieces such as the Second Ballade in F Major Op.38, the Second Scherzo Op. 31 in B flat minor and most of the Op.28 preludes. As it can be seen these years in the company of George Sand were some of the most fruitful for the composer. Curiously, during these years he also composed some of his darkest and fiercest pieces ever.
Over the years several performers have excelled in their interpretations of the sonata, and it has become a staple of both the recital repertoire as well as a favorite selection for piano competitions. Amongst the greatest recordings available it is especially important to mention Arthur Rubinstein and Joseph Horowitz’s recordings which during the early twentieth century set the standard of quality. Later more recent recordings like those by Evgeny Kissin, Murray Perahia, Ivo Pogorelić, and Mitsuko Uchida have provided novel and interesting readings of the piece taking advantage of modern recording techniques which allow for higher fidelity and sound depth.
Star pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli performing live Chopin's Funeral March
Due to its fame, the sonata has undergone several arrangements for other instrumental configurations. Perhaps the most famous ones are the numerous orchestral arrangements and amongst these, the version by Leopold Stokowski is the most widely performed. Other orchestrators have been Henry Wood and Edward Elgar who have performed the piece extensively.
In 1840 for the Great Britain publication of the sonata Chopin signed a contract with Wessel & Co for the sum of twenty-four pounds providing them with the publication rights for three works, the second piano sonata Op.35, the second Impromptu Op.36, and the Two Nocturnes Op.37.
Chopin's manuscript of the Funeral March
Ever since the original publication, Chopin’s works due to their popularity and cultural value have been extensively re-edited and republished. Currently, there are three highly respected editions that pianists and scholars around the world employ extensively. These are the German printed Henle Verlag, the edition edited by Ignacy Jan Paderewski printed in 1950, and the Chopin National Edition edited by Jan Ekier of the year 2013.
The common thread between all of these editions is the level of editorial respect and responsibility they showcase. This is demonstrated by always recurring to the original text whenever possible and cleaning the score of any past editorial additions or deletions due to arbitrary decisions or tastes. The differences exist and are due to several factors including editorial disagreements and simply having been produced at different times.
Chopin signed this historical contract at the bottom, acknowledging the receipt of money for the rights to publish three of his works, including the opus 35 "Funeral Sonata", one of his most famous works.
Another important element to mention is the Sonata’s rich cultural heritage. The third movement in the style of a funeral march has universally become a synonym for a musical representation of death and it is employed often for such purposes in pop culture.
[Photo] Portrait of Frederic Chopin by George Sand
This idea is so deeply immersed in the general public that it has led to the piece being performed at several state funerals like those of John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher.
Amongst other crucial honors, we can mention the fact that the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov modeled his own second piano sonata in B Flat Minor, Op.36 on Chopin’s model, even employing the same key. Rachmaninov deeply admired Chopin and his music, on many occasions implementing elements of his language in his own compositions. For example, Rachmaninov wrote a theme with variations set based on Chopin’s prelude Op.28 No.20.
The work consists of four movements named as follows:
- Grave – Doppio movimento (B♭ minor – B♭ major)
- Scherzo (E♭ minor with a trio and ending both in G♭ major)
- Marche funèbre: Lento (B♭ minor with a central section in D♭ major)
- Finale: Presto (B♭ minor)
The opening movement in the traditional sonata form sets forth a tragic narrative opening with a slow introduction which is quickly interrupted by a fiery, agitated, and extraordinarily fast main section or exposition with a galloping rhythm. The movement contains several calmer lyrical interludes as it was customary for sonata form; this is perhaps the movement most characteristic of Chopin’s style.
[Photo] Chopin's death mask by Clesinger
The fast scherzo style of the second movement contains several rhythmic characteristics like dotted rhythms and a ternary time signature which associate it with the mazurka dance. Clearly following a Beethovenian model, this scherzo is quite different from Chopin’s own standalone scherzi which usually have a much more dramatic twist both in terms of form and content.
The slow third movement is the famous funeral march. Its single most important defining feature is the slow and somber relentless pulsation over a march rhythm presenting a minor-key melody. As is expected of a slow movement, this highly characteristic piece contains a central episode in a major key which serves the purpose of being a brief cheerful passage that provides the listener with a glimpse of hope.
Perhaps Chopin’s most extraordinarily odd page, the sonata’s final movement has elicited infinite discussions and studies attempting to understand its function and meaning. The defining characteristic of this movement is the lack of textural development, the entire movement develops over a perpetual motion string of notes in which each of the pianist’s hands plays the same notes in different octaves.
[Photo] Chopin's love interest -the French novelist George Sand (1804-1876). A portrait by Auguste Carpentier.
The sonata as a whole has been described as disconnected, non-cohesive, and even ugly. The general opinion present today is that the work is a masterpiece of massive proportions and that its place in the repertoire is well deserved. Its lack of internal similarity is not so much a flaw but virtue and the work's narrative structure outlines the tragedy of the human condition masterfully. The connection in this piece is not carried through thematic unity but via poetic resources. Following the tragic ending of the Funeral March the fourth presto movement ensues and as legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein stated regarding its interpretation: “it is the wind howling around the gravestones”.
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