Chopin Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. 4

performed by Idil Biret
 
 
I must admit, I didn’t care much for this piece the first many times I listened to it, but… Perhaps this isn’t necessarily the sonata’s fault. 
This piece is given the opus number 4, but it was actually published posthumously and subsequently given the early opus number, accurately reflecting the time of its composition rather than publication. This designation is a bit confusing, even misleading, because while it was composed early, for whatever reason it was not published then, and as we have seen, opus numbers reflect publication dates, as is reflected in the first two Beethoven piano concertos, among many other places. 
In any case, Chopin, whether intentionally or not, didn’t publish this piece in his lifetime, and it remains to this day one of his least performed and least recorded works. In doing some research on this piece, I came across probably more distaste for it than almost any other piece I’ve read about or researched. I have some guesses as to why, and I won’t share those quotes until I’ve shared my thoughts (which is hopefully also after you’ve listened to the piece).
In contrast with something like the previous Beethoven or Mozart sonatas, the opening of this one feels… odd. For one, it begins kind of in medias res, like we’ve opened the door and entered a room with someone playing a piece and missed the first few bars or an introduction or something. But no, we jump right to the first theme. I don’t know why, but it feels like the last half of a phrase. It doesn’t sound bad, but it sounds more like the ballades that he would later write, a linear narrative more than the complex sonata-form layout. Mozart’s and Beethoven’s sonata forms, at least in sonatas we just discussed, have satisfying, clean, identifiable expositions and repeats, and while this might seem boring, it gives an awful lot of structure and logic to the presentation of themes and what we should or shouldn’t expect. 
Chopin’s piano writing is, while still lyrical and idiomatic, is by no means his most effective or inspired work. If the second theme (if that’s what I’m actually hearing) didn’t reach some more thunderous heights, I’d almost believe it was a nocturne. The movement feels like it wanders, and the listener feels lost (or at least this listener does). There are places where we can easily identify the opening Cm theme in a major key (at around 2:50), and that clicks, (and we hear it again at around 5m) but I have to say, this is no more than just…. some pretty music that seems to lack inspiration or direction, which is shocking. We’ll talk more about this later. 
The second movement was described in one of these links as ‘derivative,’ but I find entirely charming and pleasant. Perhaps it’s that the listener doesn’t expect as much drama or complexity or creativity from a minuet and trio, and while it may not be the most inventive thing he or anyone else ever wrote, I really enjoy it. It’s sweet and easy to understand, but not overly simplified; it has the
pianistic kinds of qualities that set Chopin out, not virtuosity, but the use of the piano in a unique way, or perhaps it’s just Biret’s Chopin that I’m used to hearing. There is a minor-key trio with a bit more darkness and drama, but not tons of wonderment or depth before a more… carnival-like passage leads us back to the minuet to wrap up this movement. 
The third movement, larghetto, is written in 5/4 time, an oddity for the period, and one he was not to repeat. It carries a secondary kind of accent on the third beat of the bar, and while this movement has been criticized (as has the entire piece) by many, I find it not so much a great failure as just mildly lacking in interest. It feels like the contrasting section to a funeral march we never hear. There isn’t a lot of movement, but the harmonies and expressions are tender and delicate. It’s just charming enough to hold out for the slightly-more-than four minutes it takes to play in this recording, making it the shortest movement of the piece. 
The final movement is undoubtedly the most successful and Chopinesque. It has fire and virtuosity and inventiveness and passion and takes the most breath out of the listeners. While the first movement felt, for some reason, mostly languid and kind of soggy, this one has real bite, some crunch and texture and contrast, all with a very compelling melody that drives the piece forward to its inevitable end. It’s in almost constant motion in one hand or the other, and the rhythms in this movement are much more compelling. 
A good, succinct example of the overall feelings many critics have of this piece is as follows, from this Hyperion page in reference to a recording of this piece by Garrick Ohlsson (who I greatly admire, but whose performance of this work I haven’t heard). It reads:

This work exhibits little of Chopin’s unique later style and is an effortful attempt to struggle with formal sonata structure. The opening Allegro, pianists will tell you, is technically awkward. Interest picks up in the pretty but derivative Minuet only to be quelled by the meandering Larghetto in 5/4. Perhaps the most successful movement is the Presto finale, almost a moto perpetuo in its constant quaver motion.

There’s more in this brief article. It doesn’t stop. 
If you’re really serious about understanding Chopin’s possible intentions, his potential reform of the sonata idea, and some heavy duty research about Polish music and Chopin’s approach to all of his sonatas (including the cello sonata), check out this frighteningly long page, of which I read a bit, but it’s rather beyond the scope of my article. 
My first thought is that much of Chopin’s pieces, especially surrounding this work (the early pieces, that is) are short and sweet. Even the opus two variations based on Mozart are broken up into individual sections that don’t last terribly long. Perhaps what I mean to say is… his charm, his most endearing, immediately captivating quality is in his lyricism and flow, that easily-identifiable Chopin sound, and to be honest, while it’s still here, it seems to have been sacrificed for something else I can’t identify. What I was really getting at there was to say this is the first real attempt at a large-scale form for the young composer (only 18 years old), and a departure from his typical structure might have also meant experimentation in other ways. 
I’m fine with experimentation. I won’t get into the ideology behind ‘knowing the rules before you break them,’ but it’s sufficient to say that whatever a composer does, be it with or against some ‘law’ needs to have a compelling result; any time the theory or experimentation gets in the way of art, I feel it’s out of its place, but this isn’t the time for that discussion. 
I can see a few things happening here. For one, I read someone somewhere (and if you are that person, I apologize for not sourcing my quote; I think it was a YouTube comment or something) say that if this had been any other composer’s work, it would possibly be accepted with less resistance as a respectable, legitimate sonata, but not with Chopin. Why?
Well, it’s easy to see how, even if this work had been published in 1828, his later works easily overshadowed it. The obvious culprits are his other two sonatas, epic, large, famous compositions, but then there’s also the four ballades, two concertos and other concertante work, the etudes and preludes, and on and on. It can easily be brushed under the rug or dropped behind the cupboard with the op. 1, itself not a terrible work, but also neglected. All that being said, his other two sonatas also came under criticism in the above dissertation I linked to. He didn’t really write anything in a sonata-form the way his predecessors did, and people have different feelings about that. 
In thinking about this early piece, one (as in, I, without any evidence to back up this idea) can see how perhaps Chopin had hesitated to publish the work upon its completion, but once the success of his (not even that much) later compositions came, he forgot about it, intentionally or not. Beethoven sat on some of his compositions, as we have read, waiting to play those cards in Vienna, and maybe Chopin had the same idea in mind until he realized he could do much, much better, so the card never got played. 
There’s also the chance he was not very confident about it but too sentimental (or whatever) to trash it. 
As I said above, I found the first movement interesting at first but meandering. The second movement for me is the most charming. The third movement is interesting but ultimately a bit awkward-feeling, and the final movement is… the real star of the show, by far the most successful movement. When I first read about it being one of the least-performed or regarded works of Chopin, my initial thought was to feel sorry for it, followed closely by “are we missing something?” Will there come some epiphany in the future where people suddenly realize the genius of this piece? I’m thinking not, but it does have its devoted followers, at least in some YouTube comments. Perhaps it just contains less of the greatness of Chopin than all his other works, and I can be perfectly happy with admitting that. 
For the next few days, we will see a different side of Chopin, not trying to work within the confines of such large traditional forms and structures, but structures nonetheless, at least for tomorrow. The sonata form goes away for now, and we come to something (things) much shorter, and arguably a genre closer to the composer’s heart than anything else he wrote in his career. Stay tuned. 
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