Frederic Chopin is celebrated for the extraordinary depth and breadth of his work with the piano. Over the course of his career, Chopin wrote well over two hundred compositions that featured the piano as the primary musical instrument. Of the many great works he produced, his Marche Funèbre or “Funeral March” is among his most popular and best known. Chopin wrote his funeral march as part of a sonata. In order to better understand what that means and how to locate this famous work, I feel it is important to take a step back from Chopin’s life story and talk a wee bit about how composers of the Classical period constructed their compositions.
In Classical music, most compositions fall into one of two categories: cantatas (compositions that are meant to be sung) and sonatas (compositions that are meant to be played with instruments only). In the case of Chopin’s Funeral March, it is classified as a sonata because it is an instrumental composition that is played on the piano only.
During the Classical period, composers who wrote sonatas tended to organize their work into four segments. The reason they did this was because many sonatas were lengthy compositions, and as such, it was helpful for audiences to be able to understand a composer’s intentions based upon which portion of the sonata they were listening to. Even though sonatas were instrumental pieces of music, the composers were still attempting to tell a story of sorts. At many performances, the audience would be given a libretto, which was a booklet that described the composer’s intentions during the various segments of the sonata.
The segments of a sonata comprised a larger organizational term known as the sonata form. In layperson terms, the sonata form was broken down into four main segments:
In this introductory segment, a composer would introduce the main thematic outline of the sonata. So, in the case of Chopin’s Funeral March, during the exposition segment that starts off this work, you will hear hints of the famous march to come, but you won’t hear the full march yet. ***Believe me when I tell you that this funeral march is a piece of music that is universally recognized. You may be momentarily confused or uncertain as to whether or not you know this piece based upon what you hear in the exposition phase, but trust me…you know this! Hang in there and all will be revealed in time.
2- The Development
Like all stories that are written in books, after the main characters and themes have been introduced, the plot of the story unfolds. The same is true of classical sonatas. At the conclusion of the exposition phase, once the main musical themes have been introduced, a classical composer such as Chopin would then take those initial notes, structures and so on and would expand upon them, exploring them in greater detail…luxuriating in the splendor of the composition’s construction, if you will. Again, referring to books, the development phase of a classical composition can be thought of as being similar to the main portion of a book’s plot. When done properly, the music of the Development phase will leave audiences breathless with anticipation for the next segment, which is called Recapitulation.
Using story structure as our guide, the Recapitulation phase serves as the grande finale. It is often the portion of the entire composition that audiences most remember and upon which the composer places most of his or her emphasis. It is during this phase of Chopin’s Funeral March that the tune that we are all familiar with is played. Again, let me reassure you that this is one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of music ever written. You will know that you are in the Recapitulation phase of this sonata when you hear its familiar notes begin to play.
4- The Coda
The Coda is best understood as being the conclusion of the composition. It is typically a very short segment that wraps up the composer’s message.
Frederic Chopin was born in Poland. He fled Poland when it was invaded by Russia. He ended up settling in Paris, not long after the French Revolution in 1833. Chopin wrote the familiar (recapitulation) segment of his Funeral March shortly after arriving in Paris. Once there, he fell in love with the author, George Sand. As many of you may know, George Sand was the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was one of France’s most popular and famous writers. It was while living with George Sand that Chopin completed the other segments of his sonata. It is believed that his happiness at living in a city that was awash in exultation because of the revolution, as well as his love affair with Sand, was what caused Chopin to look back at his homeland of Poland with such wistfulness at what could have been there, too. When Piano Sonata No. 2 was performed for the first time, it was well received by audiences and critics alike. While there were some mild criticisms of the piece as a whole, in particular, how the segments flowed into and out of each other, there was unanimous praise for the famous recapitulation segment that bestowed upon the world the famous funeral march itself.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ Minor takes about twenty minutes or so from start to finish. When the time comes to listen to this piece yourself, you are more than welcome to listen to it in its entirety. However, if you wish to focus just on the famous funeral march segment, you now have a guide to knowing where to look within the composition as a whole. In either case, Frederic Chopin is certainly a composer worth knowing and enjoying. I am currently reading a book about his life, and in particular, his Funeral March, called “Chasing Chopin” by Annik LaFarge. I haven’t finished it yet but I am liking it so far and would recommend it to anyone wishing to know more about this great and talented man. And finally, I will close with a piece of Chopin trivia….yes, when Chopin passed away in 1849, the Funeral March was played in his honour at his very own funeral.
The link to the video for the composition, Piano Sonata No.2, in B minor, Op 35…The Funeral March by Frederic Chopin can be found here. ***Note: this is Movement #3 or the Recapitulation segment only.
The link to the official website for the Frederic Chopin Museum can be found here.
The link to the ClassicalFm 103.1 radio station that broadcasts from my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.
***The photo used as header at the top of this post is of the Chopin sculpture that can be found in the composer’s beloved Warsaw, Poland.
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