1831: Chopin: Scherzo No. 1

TUESDAY, January 12, 2021 – 11:18 AM

Scherzo No. 1, age 21

Chopin was only 21 years old when he wrote this. His compositional style was so radically different, so original that we do not associate his early works with his being very young, and his writing style was already completely mature. Unlike most composers of his time he wrote very little for any instrument other than the piano.


Scherzo means “joke”, so a “scherzo” should be something light and playful. Chopin’s way of using this form is very different. For instance, although this is written in 3/4 time, it’s played so fast that you only hear four beats per measure because each beat is so fast that it sounds like one beat except in the middle section or “trio”, which is slow and thoughtful.

There is nothing playful or light about this piece, which not only is story but also has a ferocious ending. There is no happy ending. It ends in minor, with huge chords.

The structure is very simple and very repetitive. The form is ABA, where A is the beginning and end, then there is a coda. The trio section is the B part. However, each part also two sections, so you could also think of it as:

AAB, ABA, CDCDC, ABABA, Coda. In other words, it repeats a lot. The first A is marked with a repeat and two endings, but the repeat is generally omitted – and for good reason.

This Horowitz recording is the only one where I’ve ever liked of the fast part, though many people do beautiful things with the trio. The problem is that with so much repeating it can get boring or monotonous if there is not some important variation in the interpretation, and there is none in the music. This is actually very common for music of the time, where repeats were written out but nothing was changed in the music. Every phrase, every marking, even detail is the same. So if you don’t so something different at the end, it does not fully come alive.

Horowitz also uses chromatic octaves at the end rather than a conventional chromatic scale, and that used to be a common change. Today everyone seems to just use the written scale, and the way that so many pianists simply copy each other is now very common in a world where everyone listens to everyone else.

3 thoughts on “1831: Chopin: Scherzo No. 1

  1. I liked the way a slow movement was sandwiched between two fast and furious movements. Great contrast, and it gives a breather for the pianist as well as the listener.

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