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Beethoven is reported to have found the character of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s eponymous opera repulsive. This position derived from a view of art that was based on a firm conviction about its religious connotations, as Dr. James H. Johnson points out in his excellent article Sincerity and Seduction in Don Giovanni¹. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, in the first movement of the Sonata in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, no. 2 Beethoven seems to refer very closely to one of the central elements of Mozart’s masterpiece: the First Act’s murder scene, the beginning of a turbulent series of events that lead to Don Giovanni’s death.

The moon is high. Don Giovanni breaks into the house of the Commendatore with the goal of adding his daughter, Donna Anna, to his endless catalogue of conquests. Trying to defend her, the Commendatore engages Don Giovanni in a duel and is fatally wounded. “Ah, soccorso! Son tradito!” – he screams – “L’assassino m’ha ferito, E dal seno palpitante Sento l’anima partir” (Help! I have been betrayed! The assassin wounded me, and from my palpitating chest I feel my soul depart).² The portrayal of this crucial moment is one of genius in Mozart’s hands. The accompaniment in triplets played by the strings with pizzicati in the bass relies on a pedal point that creates strong harmonic ambiguity, instilling a sense of agony that will not resolve until the end of the episode. The Commendatore’s imploring vocal gestures are outlined by insisting figurations sung by both Don Giovanni and Leporello:




W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni, K 527, Act One, Scene One, mm. 176-183

The likeness between this scene and the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 27, no. 2 is unmistakable:

L. van Beethoven: Sonata in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, no. 2 - I. Adagio sostenuto - mm. 4-7

In Mozart, the calm ostinato of the accompaniment portrays the silvery quality of the moonlight. The sense of mystery provided by the unassuming stillness of the background establishes a paradox with this tragic, fundamental episode in the opera. While in Beethoven’s opening movement of the Moonlight a sense of tragedy being consumed might not be perceived with equal power, the color and texture achieved are certainly suggestive of the nocturnal atmosphere depicted by the accompaniment in Don Giovanni’s scene.

Don Giovanni or not, it is the German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who nicknamed the Sonata Moonlight. The moon reflecting on Lake Lucerne was supposedly the stirring image about which Rellstab wrote in the 1830s, less than a decade after Beethoven’s death.

To what extent was Chopin influenced by this first movement when composing his Nocturne in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, no. 1, written in 1835? Even though Chopin was certainly unfamiliar with Rellstab’s description of the Moonlight at the time, doubtlessly there are strong parallels that can be drawn between the two pieces. Not only do they offer nocturnal depictions: they also share the same opus number, key signature, accompaniment in triplets, and dotted eighth-note rhythm in the right-hand melody. Chopin occasionally assigned this Sonata to his pupils, and it would not be surprising that introducing all these mutual elements in his Nocturne had been a premeditated decision on his part.

A recent article by Dr. Nigel Nettheim shows how Chopin’s Ballade in f minor likely derives from material found in works of Bach and Beethoven.³ Dr. Nettheim drew parallels between the elaboration of the thematic material in the main theme of the Ballade and the Prelude in b-flat minor from the first volume of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, and how subsequent episodes in the Ballade clearly point to specific melodic and cadential components found in the same piece. Elements from Beethoven’s Sonata in f minor, Op. 57 seem also to have deeply affected the coda of the Ballade (perhaps not coincidentally in the same key). The same article implies that thematic material from the first movement of this Beethoven Sonata may have served as a model for the closing movement of Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28:

Chopin op. 28/24, 3-19, 74-77; Beethoven op.57-I bars 1-24, 258-262 (10,359 bytes)

A comparison between Chopin’s Prelude in d minor, Op. 28, no. 24 (a) and Beethoven’s first movement of the Sonata in f minor, Op. 57 (b) from Dr. Nigel Nettheim’s article (with kind permission)

Striking similarities can be detected between the works of Chopin and Mozart as well. In the middle section of the Largo from the Sonata in b minor, Op. 58, for instance, the eighth-note figuration unquestionably resembles the writing in the B section of Mozart’s a minor Rondo, K.511:

Mozart: Rondo in a minor, K. 511 - m. 46 (left) / Chopin: Sonata in b minor, Op. 58 - III. Largo - m. 77 (right)

How much of it could have been unconscious? A significant case was pointed out by Ernst Oster, who concluded that the reason why Chopin never published the Fantaisie-Impromptu in c-sharp minor (published posthumously as Op. 66 by Julian Fontana) was that it almost embarrassingly showed its derivation and motivic manipulation from the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. 


If composers of the past deeply affected Chopin’s works, whether or not accidentally, we could hypothesize that in the exposition of the Fantaisie in f minor Chopin drew inspiration from this same movement of the Moonlight. A rather unorthodox approach to Sonata-form was employed in this presto agitato, where the second thematic block in the exposition appears in the key of g-sharp minor instead of following a conservative route that would modulate to the relative key of E Major. Beethoven introduces a relation between themes that is somewhat off balance, mirroring the harmonic layout of a movement written in a major key, where the second thematic group conventionally appears at the dominant. In this movement, the dichotomy established between the two thematic elements is preserved, highlighting the structure in a fairly conventional way. However, the harmonic scheme introduces this strongly ambiguous element, appropriately justifying the piece’s subtitle Sonata quasi una Fantasia in some of its idiosyncratic design.

Between 1841 and 1842, Chopin completed some of his greatest achievements. The Ballades in A-flat major, Op. 47, and f minor, Op. 52; the Mazurkas Op. 50; the Impromptu Op. 51; the two Nocturnes, Op. 48; the Prelude, Op. 45; and the Fantaisie Op. 49; all these works were the result of an extremely productive and inspired period in which he enjoyed overall good health, certainly stimulated by the beautiful summers spent at Nohant with George Sand. Despite such a consistent level of quality throughout those two summers, Chopin failed to find satisfaction in his Fantaisie in f minor. After months endlessly spent refining it, with reluctance he sent it to the publishers.

A few years earlier, with the Ballade in g minor, Op. 23, finished in 1835 and published in 1836, Chopin opened the road to a new conception of Sonata-form, with a new abridged version of a structure that was feeling the burden of time. It is commonly believed that it took him nearly three years to feel content with it (although an unsolved mystery envelops the gestation of the piece: based on detective work done on the paper that Chopin was using at the time, some scholars concluded that it could not have started any early than 1834). Chopin found a solution to an otherwise old-fashioned formula by eliminating a full recapitulation: creating a strong climactic point in the development, he poured forth directly into the second theme, bypassing the re-exposition of the first thematic block. Soon after the Ballade, this new convincing intuition was captured again in the first movement of the Sonata in b-flat minor, op. 35. Chopin used almost exactly the same identical procedure in the opening movement of his third Sonata in b minor, Op. 58, and ended his life as a composer by sending to the prints a work that represented his final monumental effort, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65, where the same concept was followed once again in the first and fourth movements. This innovative conception had already been used in the 18th century, but its occurrence was extremely rare. We find an example of it in the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K311.

His two Piano Concerti were a different matter altogether. The stylistic blueprint of the Classical Concerto with a double exposition was pursued by a nineteen-year-old who was trying to affirm himself as an itinerary virtuoso. Structural originality was not an object. What are the motivations that pushed Chopin to destroy a tradition that had lasted for over sixty years? Was it the fact that it became a stale practice in need of a fresher approach? Was he trying to create a trademark that would set him apart as a revolutionary, an iconoclast?

In this respect, the Fantaisie Op. 49 somewhat represents a big anomaly in Chopin’s output. After abandoning the strict Sonata-form for nearly a decade, Chopin resuscitated it in the Fantaisie, presenting a configuration that featured a full recapitulation in a piece that, if living up to its expectations, was supposed to employ a free form! Yet, if the structure recuperates old archetypes, what needs to be considered ‘fantastic’ in this case is the highly unconventional harmonic layout, which presents a fairly complex path. In the Fantaisie, Chopin reaches heights never accomplished before, embodying extraordinary qualities drawn both from the present and the past.

In Chopin’s Fantaisie, Beethoven’s revolutionary approach is preserved and expanded in the exposition, where the dialectic between the two thematic groups is less radical because of the melodic nature that unifies their character. As the piece unfolds, we also recognize traits that are grounded in the operatic milieu: there are two Marches, a Chorus, a Recitativo. There is even an Intermezzo. Furthermore, the harmonic layout is based on relations of minor and major thirds, playing a fundamental role by evoking harmonic implications often found in coeval Italian and French arias. The Fantaisie was definitely not an attempt to contribute to the tradition of the Fantasia Drammatica, a genre which Liszt and Thalberg had introduced as of the early 1830s. Chopin had kept himself rather distant from that world, making brief, shy appearances in it with the Duo Concertante on Themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable for cello and piano, written in 1831-32, and, peripherally, with a Nocturne-like Variation on the March from I Puritani by Bellini of 1837, which found inclusion as no.6 in Liszt’s Exameron.

In the Fantaisie, transitional episodes based on patterned arpeggiations are used as linking elements between sections and afford quite extravagant modulations based on chromatic implications. This kind of writing consents extreme harmonic freedom and is stylistically derived from formulas that most likely Chopin employed in his improvisations. It is in Eugene Delacroix’s journal that we read about Chopin’s extemporary playing being bolder than his compositions, both in style and character, his actual pieces being mere distillations of his improvisations. We surely find that boldness in these arpeggiated figurations, virtuosic in nature, whose inclusion in the piece balances out the strictness of the Sonata-form, re-establishing contact with the idea of capriciousness that one would assume to find in a piece entitled ‘Fantasy’.

An unexpected element occurred to me only a few years after I had learned the piece: the relation between the austere opening in f minor and the section in the key of B Major marked Lento, sostenuto, which we could define in operatic terms as an Intermezzo. B breaks the octave of F in two perfect parts, creating a tension that surpasses that of the simple dichotomy dominant-tonic, frequently used to create harmonic contrasts. It is the augmented fourth, also known as tritoneDiabolus in musica, as it was called in the Baroque era. How ironic that a tritone would distance this religious, hymn-like Intermezzo from the severity of the introduction! Stemming from the Lydian mode and being a rather common interval in Polish folklore, one is only left wondering whether this way of using the augmented fourth in the Fantaisie was a coincidence.

I mentioned how Chopin’s Fantaisie embodies qualities that are drawn both from the past and the present. If stylistic elements were borrowed from the contemporary Italian and French Opera, form and balance link the work to past traditions. In Chopin, however, everything is in constant transformation, even the reinvention of a strict form as it was employed in the 18th century. If the exposition followed the harmonic structure found in the third movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 27, no. 2, the recapitulation seems to backtrack to earlier years and possibly follow the model presented by the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 545, which features a recapitulation at the subdominant. In Mozart, this procedure was utilized conveniently, given that the conciseness of the movement did not allow much room for harmonic and structural flexibility. In the Fantaisie, the form is extended to the degree that this route would be completely unnecessary. Proposing a literal recapitulation at the subdominant (b-flat minor) led to the placement of the correct tonal area (f minor) for the second theme. However, because of the modulation to its relative major in the exposition, this made the piece end in the ‘wrong’ key – A-flat Major. Chopin had experimented with a similar formula in the Scherzo, Op. 31, where nonetheless the b-flat minor of the opening plays such a secondary role throughout the outer sections that the relative major prevails and imposes itself as the featured key.


While considering the tritone relation employed in the Fantaisie between the main body of the piece and the ‘Intermezzo’ in B Major, it occurred to me that a similar strategy is utilized in the Ballade in g minor, Op. 23. The scheme is ingenuously articulated, with a mirror-like architecture that bases its pillars on three fundamental keys:

g minor - E-flat Major - (a minor) - A Major - E-flat Major - g minor

The abridged recapitulation pours forth into the second theme, re-proposing E-flat major with a long peroration that leads to the extended coda in g minor. The presence of a tritone in the middle, breaking the piece in two, enhances A Major as an extremely remote place, furthering the sense of anticipation as the crescendo to the development, based on a pedal point, builds up the dynamic tension to the fortissimo.

We previously saw how in the Scherzo in b-flat minor, Op. 31 the opening key quickly turns to its relative major, D-flat, closing the A section. Unexpectedly, the Trio opens in A Major, enharmonically a major third apart, compromising the assurance that relating keys conventionally provide:

F. Chopin: Scherzo in b-flat minor, Op. 31 – mm. 253-268

The key of A Major abruptly modulates to c-sharp minor, parallel minor of D-flat Major. In this Scherzo, the shifts to new keys are often harsh and unexpected, making the spectrum of emotions much more defined. I believe not coincidentally, the introduction of the key of E Major (dominant of A Major) via its relative (c-sharp minor) in the Trio is used to create a harmonic tension that is based again on a tritone relation with the opening key of b-flat minor, showcasing brilliant waltz-like passagework that is reminiscent of the outer sections.

In the Polonaise Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, third relations are used throughout the work, creating unforeseen harmonic situations enhancing the dichotomy between thematic materials. The key of the second major idea, B Major, is already presented enharmonically as C-flat Major in the opening measure of the piece:

F. Chopin: Polonaise Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 - m. 1

The startling opening in a-flat minor allows Chopin to use C-flat Major as its relative major key or its mediant, establishing already a relation of thirds within the first measure by treating the tension either as VI-I or I-III. B Major will also be used as the key proposing a brief, fragmented recapitulation. Following the harmonic path presented at the beginning, the first measure of the recapitulation (m. 214) features the key of D Major, a tritone apart from the key of the opening:

F. Chopin: Polonaise Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 – mm. 208-220

What follows is a chain of harmonies that certainly implies a close relation (A Major in measure 215 as the dominant of D Major in the previous measure, and C Major in the same measure as the dominant of f minor in measure 216), but that are introduced in a scattered manner, producing a state of melancholy and desolation caused by kaleidoscopic changes of colors in pianissimo, with a sudden forte urging from the abysses (m. 215), immediately vanishing into thin air.

Creating striking harmonic contrasts was a device used already in the 18th century, mostly to create strong shifts in color between movements of large works. This is present early in Beethoven’s output: in the Trio in G Major, Op. 1, no. 2, the Adagio movement is in E Major; in the Sonata in C Major, Op. 2, no. 3, the second movement, Adagio, is also in E Major, distancing the listener from a predictable relation of dominant or subdominant. The same procedure is adopted in his Piano Concerto in C Major, Op. 15, where the middle movement is in A-flat Major. In the Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73, the second movement is written in B Major (enharmonically C-flat, a major third below E-flat). Beethoven brings this dialectic even further by using it within the first movement of the Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, where E Major appears in the exposition as the key of the second thematic group. The same operation is used in his last Sonata, Op. 111, where the second theme in A-flat Major in the first movement is based on a dominant pedal point. In the Piano Concerto in G Major, Op. 58, after a brief, intimate five-measure introduction of the piano ending at the dominant, the orchestra introduces the same material, this time in B Major.

Haydn had started using this approach a few years earlier: in his Trio in G Major, Hob. XV/25, the slow movement is in E Major (a possible harmonic model for Beethoven’s Trio Op. 1, no. 2?); in the Sonata in c-sharp minor, Hob. XVI/36, the middle movement is scored in A Major. Years later, Haydn brings this practice to an extreme in his Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52, by writing the middle movement in the far key of E Major, emphasizing a strong attraction to an ideal Neapolitan harmony found already in the recapitulation of the first movement.

Coloristic shifts between movements of a large work are present in Chopin as well: the Scherzo from the b minor Sonata, Op. 58 is in E-flat Major (enharmonically D-sharp, a major third away from B), a key that was already introduced momentarily in the first movement in the bridge between the two thematic blocks of the exposition, functioning as a pseudo-Neapolitan of the second subject in D Major. The appearance of E-flat Major again in the fourth movement of this Sonata confirms Chopin’s astute layout of harmonic schemes for extended structures, a skill doubted for a long time by many opinionated scholars who discussed Chopin’s handling of large forms. Curiously, in the Sonata in b minor, the dominant of the main key (F-sharp Major) is avoided throughout the entire work as a main harmonic center, with the exception of a brief momentary appearance as the featured key in the first appearance of the second theme in the Rondo-Sonata movement.

Robert Schumann also used relations of thirds to create paths within multi-movement compositions. Kreisleriana, Op. 16, comes to mind, where a chain-like structure is superimposed to a sequence of third relations: the opening movement, in d minor, proposes a middle section in B-flat Major; the same key is used for the second lyrical movement of the set; the second Intermezzo of this movement is in the key of g minor, which is also the key of the following movement; the middle section re-proposes the key of B-flat Major, which is also the opening key of the fourth movement; the middle section is in B-flat Major, but features a strong attraction to g minor, the key of the fifth movement. The chain pattern continues uninterrupted until the end, and the set will even find a sense of unity with the opening by echoing the d minor of the Prelude-like movement in the second Intermezzo of the concluding piece. Schumann extensively uses third relations between movements of large works, such as in the Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17, with the second movement in E-flat Major. The Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 54, features the key of F Major for the second movement.
In Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60, the relation of thirds is certainly employed, but here the harmony shifts by using substantial mode changes. The opening key of F-sharp Major is preserved quite consistently throughout the first few pages, with somewhat conventional transitions to its relative minor (a minor third below) and its dominant. F-sharp Major suddenly turns into f-sharp minor, justifying the sudden shift to its relative, A Major (a minor third above), which becomes the predominant key for a substantial portion of the piece. Through an extended section that features some harmonic instability, we land in C-sharp Major, beginning a long peroration that returns to the key of F-sharp Major (C-sharp Major being its implied dominant). This procedure seems to be relatively simple, yet it reveals a carefully planned scheme that supports the Barcarolle’s unmistakable folk implications. This simplicity also reveals Chopin’s affinity to operatic archetypes consistently found in his works: the duet-like melody in thirds and sixths (perhaps a model for Sous le dôme épais, the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakme?) and the sudden modulations to relative or parallel keys. The section marked sfogato might also give us a glimpse of operatic allusions, where the writing is reminiscent of vocal qualities typical of the soprano acuto.


Playing Chopin’s Barcarolle for Russell Sherman radically changed my vision of the piece: he encouraged me to find the identity of the alto voice, insisting that it was a much needed element in the enunciation of the melody, so as not to attribute all the ‘responsibilities’ to the soprano. “Chamber music”, as Sherman would describe it, referring to the timbric independence of each line as of that of instruments of different nature. Crucial to my understanding of this essential factor was time: only after years did I feel gratified by the degree of confidence that I had achieved in performance.

Another revelation about the piece came when Sherman asked one day, “Roberto, since you are Italian… what exactly does sfogato mean?”. I mumbled “Being able to finally say or do something after keeping it inside for a long time”. That was the closest paraphrase of the term I was able to offer, as I had never paid much attention to a possible translation of it. Looking somewhat puzzled, Sherman proceeded to illustrate his account of it, which was closer to “sfocato” - in Italian, ‘out of focus’. “In a mist”, he suggested, given the silvery sound he so magically produced.

A few days later, I was leafing through André Gide’s Notes on Chopin, which I had read somewhat superficially as a teenager. Gide compared Chopin’s works to Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal, assigning a whole new meaning to the word sfogato and its interpretation in this specific instance:

Has any other musician used this term, felt the desire, the need to indicate this breathing openness, this breeze which, interrupting the rhythm, intervenes unexpectedly to refresh and perfume the middle section of the Barcarolle?

I was perplexed. Chopin was the first composer ever to employ the word sfogato in a score, but I found the idea that he might have misused it tempting. The marking, which appears in measure 78, has been puzzling many, and unless Chopin confused sfogato with ‘sfocato’, I found difficult to believe that he would get so descriptive of such an intense, emotional state:



Example P.8 - F. Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 - mm. 77-85

Certainly, ‘in a mist’ is a plausible interpretation. Perhaps Sherman had a point. Maybe Chopin just misspelled an Italian word, hearing it pronounced by Countess Carlotta Marliani in her colorful Tuscan accent, where hard Cs seamlessly turn into guttural Gs. Nevertheless, I was quite keen on the notion that Chopin had something in mind that differs from what we normally imagine in this passage. Perhaps he borrowed the word from a common vocal term that indicates a very high acrobatic soprano voice, with light, airy tone - the so called soprano acuto sfogato. In his youth, Chopin had used other vocal terms in his pieces in order to suggest an emotional state. Is sfogato a possible allusion to the lightness and airiness of the passage? To be played in the style of a soprano acuto sfogato? Did André Gide have it right?

I recently looked up sfogato on the internet. Here is what I found: ‘Unburdened’, which somehow made a strong case, especially in light of the harmonic function and the emotional release of that specific passage; ‘Relieving the heart with the utmost expression’ (courtesy of the Dutch Piano Duo Sfogato), which was certainly better than the translation I had provided for Sherman: it aptly serves the nature of the dolce that accompanies the melody, giving its intonation a full, inebriating quality, floating on the rich texture of overtones generated by the left hand. I am still not completely certain that Chopin used the word being fully aware of its meaning. Certainly, the Piano Duo Sfogato provided an accurate translation of the term –or at least the closest one.

õ õ õ

Some months ago, my friend Valerie provided quite a wonderful description of the Barcarolle (and the sfogato passage), which I will selflessly share:

“Chopin wrote to his family in July 1845:

‘I hope Paris will have good weather for this month’s celebrations. This year [...] it is to be illuminated. On the Seine, this summer, speculators in human whims have hit on a new notion. There are several vessels, very smartly got up, and gondolas in the Venetian style, that ply in the evenings. This novelty delights the boulevard crowds, and it is said (I have not seen it myself) that great numbers of persons go out on the water’.6

The idea of writing a Barcarolle came to Chopin around this period. It is a rich, multi-voiced work, where contrapuntal ideas are brought to such a new level that one needs to re-evaluate the concept of measure as a restraining factor. There are instances, such as in the section marked dolce sfogato, where Chopin introduces a voice in the left hand which, by means of subterranean devising, manages to descend while remaining virtually outside of the measure, as if it were sinking gossamer, delicately masked by voluptuous meanderings in the right hand, nevertheless reaching us on a subconscious level.

Rare is the interpreter who can find all of the voices in the Barcarolle and give them more than effective pianism, but arrive at the sort of feelings which these interwoven lines are intended to evoke. It is a monumental achievement on many levels. Friederich Nietzsche, whose heart had room for music, considered the Barcarolle Chopin’s best work.

Everything is here: the heave, the ripples, the glints and shadows, the imagined whiff of canals and gondoliers alike, a playful suggestion of danger, of sense of unity between sensuality, intrigue, rightness and joy. Its cosmic quality lifts us into a sublime, suspended, blissful state, not quite as a loss of innocence but as the most delicate hint of the possibility: civilized consummation through non-consummation – a state of eternal postponement – of dwelling at the brink end, settling for that as an end in itself”.
Valerie also pointed out that “Chopin had a head for numbers. He would have been amused to learn the price of a gondola today: between fifteen and twenty-five thousand U.S. dollars!” [That was before the conversion to Euros and the tragic fall of the dollar]

1) James H. Johnson, “Sincerity and Seduction in Don Giovanni”, “Expositions”, Vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2007 (September), 49
2) Translation by Roberto Poli
3) Nigel Nettheim, “The Derivation of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade from Bach and Beethoven”, “The Music Review”, Vol. 54 No. 2, 1993, 95-111
4) Ernst Oster, “The Fantaisie-Impromptu: A Tribute to Beethoven” from Aspects of Schenkerian Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), Appendix, 189-207; original article published in Musicology 1 (1947), 407-429
5) André Gide, Notes sur Chopin (Paris, France: L’Arche, 1948), 31 - Roberto Poli, translation
6) Ethel Lillian Voynich, Henryk Opienski, Chopin’s letters (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1988), 289