by Zofia Helman

translated by Radosław Materka and Maja Trochimczyk


The research into the presence of sonata forms in Chopin’s music (Niecks 1890, Huneker 1900, Leichtentritt 1921-22, Opieński 1928-29, Chomiński 1960) shows a clear and pronounced dependency upon the theoretical paradigms of the sonata-form that prevailed during that period. Consequently, early analyses of Chopin’s sonatas pointed out their departures from the classical norm; subsequently the specific romantic features of the sonatas were stressed, in particular, the principle of deriving all the themes of a movement from one motivic substance. This aspect of Chopin’s style was seen as heralding the late romantic sonatas of Franck and Liszt.

The present study eschews an appraisal of Chopin’s sonatas from the perspective of an academic model of the sonata-form. The compositions are treated as individual solutions to the range of problems posed by the genre itself. In considering the question of changes in the sonata-genre in Chopin’s music, the author strives first and foremost to reveal the relationships and tensions which arise between a repertoire of norms inherited from the past and the modification and extension of such old principles. The confrontation of actual compositional practice with the theory of sonata-form that prevailed at the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries (Koch 1782- 93, Galeazzi 1796, Reicha 1834) is also of vital importance in this context. Chopin did not revolutionize sonata form. Irrespective of the changes which occur in the treatment of the genre, Chopin’s sonata-form compositions generally preserve the four-movement cycle, with the consistent layout of movements; obviously, he also adheres to the framework of the sonata-allegro form, with its classic division into a repeated exposition, development and recapitulation. The manner in which the internal form of Chopin’s sonata cycles is fashioned determines their division into two groups. The first group encompasses pieces written up to 1830 (Sonata in C minor, Piano Trio in G minor), the second group includes three sonatas from the late period. Initially, Chopin had recourse to various sonata- allegro traditions, although he avoided the scheme that was most widely employed and accepted by the theoreticians. In the Sonata in C minor, similarly to the Piano Trio, the exposition remained in a uniform tonality, while contrasts in the tonality of the subject were transferred to the recapitulation. The change in Chopin’s style around 1837-39 was determined not so much by his re-acceptance of the sonata-genre that had been neglected in his music of the previous years, as by changes in the internal formation of the sonata-allegro and changes in his musical language.

In the later sonatas the Chopinesque model of the sonata-allegro was established with the following four groups of features: (1) a binary division into exposition and development with recapitulation, (2) a clear thematic conflict, (3) the opening of the recapitulation with the second theme, and (4) the unification of thematic material. In respect to the first characteristics, Chopin’s expositions are longer than those appearing in the sonatas of, for example, Schubert and Schumann; the ratio of Chopin’s expositions to second parts consisting of the development and the recapitulation is more or less 1:1, whereas the beginning of the recapitulation appears approximately at the golden section. (2) The second subject (in the relative major, with the lyrical characteristics of a cantilena) does not have the character of a subsidiary idea but plays a vital role in the form as a whole and is not of secondary importance when compared with the first subject. (3) The recapitulation opens with the second subject in the tonic major. The omission of the first subject results not so much from an avoidance of literal repetition as from dramaturgy of form. Elements of the first subject are not introduced until the end of the recapitulation. (4) Chopin’s sonatas-cycles are distinguished to a greater or lesser extent by a tendency towards unification of thematic material in individual movements, or, indeed, in the whole cycle, by means of small motivic cells. Irrespective of this multi-factored model which provides solely a compositional framework, each of Chopin’s late sonatas has its own, distinct and individual features and creates a specific variant of the model. Individuation is linked with transformations of the musical language as well as with the individual dramatic conception of each sonata.



The reception history of Chopin’s sonatas, seen from the perspective of both musical criticism and musicology, could nowadays create a subject for a separate research paper. It is rare that music that has existed in the world repertoire for 150 years can still elicit such extremely varied theoretic interpretations. However, scholars writing about Chopin have already pointed out these discrepancies, devoting much attention to disputing the opinions of others (i.e., Opieński 1928-29, Jachimecki 1957, Chomiński 1960). [1] Differences in understanding of both the sonata form and the sonata cycle in the works of Chopin depend largely on theoretical paradigms dominant in certain professional circles. If, for example, scholars use the “textbook” definition of a sonata-allegro form (i.e., Niecks 1890, Huneker 1900, d’Indy 1909, Leichtentritt 1921-22)[2], Chopin’s sonatas seem excessively fantasy-like, complicated, and badly constructed. This applies not only to the Sonata in C Minor, Op. 4 (1827-28) which is controversial to this day, and the Sonata for Piano and Violoncello, Op. 65 (1845-46), but also to Chopin’s most famous piano sonatas: those in B-flat Minor,, Op. 35 (1837-39) and in B Minor, Op. 58 (1844).

A totally different approach to analysis may be found in the works of Halm (1920), Kurth (1920), and Mersmann (1926).[3] The form here is interpreted not according to a scheme, but as an individual and unrepeatable system of musical occurrences, with their own dynamics of tension and release. This approach finds its reflection in the writings of certain Polish scholars (i.e., Chomiński 1950, 1960).[4] Chomiński does not consider Chopin’s departures from the academic definition of the sonata-allegro form to be “errors;” rather, he uses a dualistic conception of the sonata-allegro form based on thematic conflict as his point of reference. From the perspective of historic relativism, all the changes made to the sonata form were perceived by some scholars as evolutionary in character. Not only Chomiński, but also Opieński (1928-29), and Jachimecki (1957) strongly emphasized the “romanticism” of Chopin’s sonatas, trying to place them between the classical and late-romantic types of the sonata, especially as exemplified by Liszt or Franck.

The subject of the transformation of Chopin’s approach to the sonata form appeared in the writings of the above-mentioned scholars with an almost automatic repetitiveness. On the one hand, scholars focused on the obvious difference between the Sonata in C Minor (composed by the very young Chopin and considered to be a less than successful attempt at creating a work based on the formal framework of the sonata-form) and the mature Sonatas in B-flat Minor and B Minor. On the other hand, while the enigmatic character of the Sonata in G Minor led some scholars (especially Niecks and Opieński) [5] to believe that this work was proof of the composer’s lessening creative “impetus,” other researchers (Jachimecki and Chomiński) viewed this Sonata as a further expansion of the sonata form. As Chomiński wrote, “Chopin’s sonata output does not follow any progressively developing trajectory.” [6] While there is a noticeable difference in quality between the Sonatas in C Minor and in B-flat Minor, this difference could be a result of the large time gap separating the works. One should note that this temporal distance is somewhat filled-in by the Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 8 (1828-29) and both Piano Concerti; however, these works were not considered by the authors discussing Chopin’s sonatas. According to Chomiński (ibidem), the role of the Piano Concerti is limited to the formation of the “cantilena themes” which are characteristic of Chopin; nonetheless, he does not mention the Piano Trio in this context. Protopopov [7] in his 1967 study regarded the feature of “unusual recapitulations” to be the most characteristic element of Chopin’s early works in sonata form; these recapitulations contain different layouts of key relationships than those provided by classical models, and sometimes (i.e., in the Trio in G Minor, and the Concerto in E Minor) the recapitulations contain a reversed key relationship between the themes presented in the expositions. Andrzej Chodkowski[8] also states that the construction of the sonata-allegro form in the early works of Chopin (i.e., the Sonata in C Minor and the Trio in G Minor) was the result of a fully purposeful compositional design; this approach allows one to interpret these works as much more than just examples of an unskillful application of the sonata form model.

Regardless of the evaluation of the form of these works, one should point out the temporal gap between the creation of the Concerto in E Minor, Op. 11 (1830) and the Sonata in B-flat Minor (1837-39). The Allegro de Concert in A Major, Op. 46 (1834-41) does not provide a sufficient basis for drawing conclusions about transformations in Chopin’s style, though it could at least support the thesis that there is a definite continuity in Chopin’s interest in the sonata form. The next three sonatas belong to the late period of Chopin’s compositional output and all the scholars agree that those pieces significantly differ from their predecessors; the differences are noticeable in architectural conceptions, types of dramaturgy, and musical language. Moreover, the sonatas’ artistic value is incomparably higher. Opieński (1929, 161) considers the absence of the main theme in the recapitulation to be the most characteristic element of Chopin’s late sonatas. Protopopov (1967, 128-9) agrees with Opieński and expands this idea by proposing the existence of a specific kind of bi-partite structure as an essential, basic aspect of the sonatas’ construction. [9] The first part of this construction consists of the exposition, while the second part combines the development and recapitulation. This bi-partite outline stems from “the transformation of values of the classic tri-partite sonata form, resulting from the romantic pathos, filled with emotion” (ibidem, 28). Could these sonatas be understood solely as replications of a single, “Chopinesque” formal scheme? Chomiński observed not only similarities, but also transformations of the model that permit us to notice a certain evolutionary line of development. The differences in presenting expositions and the ways of treating final movements could be seen as proofs of an evolutionary theory. [10] Chomiński also treats the Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65 as a further instance of formal expansion with its overall construction and variances in the structuring of themes. Even if the Sonata in G Minor, with its musical isomorphisms, did not exemplify the elementary concept of a thematic conflict, the unification of motivic substance still marked a historic development in the evolution of this form. According to Chomiński, this unification led to Chopin’s reliance on the “principe cyclique” in shaping the form of this work. [11] This principle, noticed also by Leichtentritt in Chopin’s Sonatas in B-flat Minor and in B Minor, allowed these scholars to defuse accusations against Chopin regarding the absence of organic qualities in his music.[12]

Chomiński attempted to find a new explanation for changes in Chopin’s model of the sonata form, remaining profoundly dissatisfied with simplistic interpretations stemming from the notion of a romantic transformation of classical principles. The Polish scholar explained Chopin’s use of cantilena and the nocturne-like themes as being directly influenced by the specific socio-demographic situation of his time (i.e., the creation of a middle-class that revelled in reading sentimental poetry).[13] Finally, Chomiński justified the “pessimistic” and unified character of the Sonata in G Minor by tragic occurrences in Chopin’s life at the time of this works’s creation. The scholar concluded that such pessimism was compensated for by the use of thematic conflict and an optimistic resolution in the work’s finale.[14] In both cases it is extremely difficult to agree with the author’s proposal of an immediate connection between “external occurrences” (communal or private) and transformations of the musical form.

Such general conclusions, not reaching beyond the musical sphere, focused on romantic transformations of the classic sonata form in Chopin’s works as well as on the appearance of future-oriented trends in these compositions (“principe cyclique”). These evolutionary theoretical interpretations explain neither the true nature of choices made by Chopin himself nor their causes. Arguing from a point of view centering on the elucidation of changes in Chopin’s individual style, the authors either assembled theories of the style’s growth, peak, and collapse (i.e., Opieński), or confirmed a constant growth leading to future changes (Chomiński).

Examples of a different approach to the 19th-century sonata form can be found in the writings of Newman (1969) and Rosen (1988). [15] Newman, while describing the greatest sonata composers after Beethoven, i.e., Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms, did not attempt to build a linear theory of growth, highlighting instead different approaches to the sonata form (e.g., “Process,” “Mold,” and “Unicum”). He qualifies Chopin’s Sonata in B Minor as a “Unicum,” since in this work the composer radically departed from the classical standards.[16] Rosen, in turn, maintains that at the time of the codification of sonata form in theoretical works (1830-40) it was impossible to talk about expansion of the form, but only about influences of the musical language on the form. For Rosen, the point of reference was provided by a theoretical scheme, not the works of a given composer’s predecessors. [17] An ongoing controversy still surrounds the issue of whether such schemes (perpetuated via the system of compositional education) influenced the theoretical writings of Reicha (1824-26), Czerny (1849), and A. B. Marx (1845) before the final codification of the theoretical frameworks of the sonata-allegro form and the sonata cycle.[18] This problem becomes especially important with reference to Chopin’s compositions in sonata form created before 1830.

Numerous descriptions of the sonata form existed in the 18th century, e.g., in the Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition of H. Ch. Koch (1796), or the Elementi teorico-pratici di musica of F. Galeazzi (1796). [19] A characteristic element of both of those theories is that the first movement of a sonata is treated as a two-part form and described as an instance of a distinctive tonal organization (Dahlhaus 1978).[20] In Koch’s rhetorical conception of form, the criteria for articulating formal divisions are the rhythm of phrases, periodic structure, cadential extensions, etc. Only in the 19th century, especially in the theoretical writings of A. B. Marx, the “point of gravity” relocates to the concept of the theme. Thematic conflict in the exposition, its transformations in development, and resolution in the recapitulation became the most important components of the theory. The tri-partite construction established by Marx, became a foundation for the “science” of musical forms later on. In the descriptions of Czerny and Reicha, however, the sonata form consisted of two sections with the second section further divided into two segments. In his treatise, Reicha does not introduce the term “sonata form,” using the term “La grande coupe binaire” instead. [21] Its scheme is described below in Tables 1, 2 and 3 in Figure 1 (see Figure 1 below).

In his theory, Reicha established the location of themes in the exposition as well as the scheme of key relationships that later appeared in academic studies of the sonata form: major tonic – major dominant in the major keys, and Minor tonic – parallel major tonicin the minor keys. He claimed that the final cadence of the exposition should be in the dominant and the whole exposition should be repeated. The development and recapitulation created one section divided into two segments. The end of the development, while preparing for the return of the first theme should also be based on the dominant key. The first theme could be shortened, or transposed to a different key (i.e., a Minor subdominant). According to Reicha, one could transpose the transitions, but the main key should predominate and the second theme should be also be presented in the main key. Reicha further stated that the recapitulation could start with the “seconde idee,” where the first theme then became the basis for further development. [22] He recognized a distinction between the “idee mere” and the “idee accessoire,” in which the first term referred to the main themes (both first and second), while the second term described material appearing in the transitions and epilogues. Finally, the theoretician set the durational ratio between the two large-scale sections of the “grande coupe binaire” as 1:2 or even 1:3 (obviously without considering the repetitions).

Theoretical findings referring to the form of the first movement in a sonata cycle undoubtedly reflected compositional practice at the turn of the 19th century. While Reicha drew his examples mostly from the music of Haydn and Mozart, the Majority of models in the theory of A. B. Marx were provided by the sonatas of Beethoven. Earlier, in the 18th century, the unified sonata-allegro form that would be universally used in the first part of the cycle did not yet exist (see Rosen); [23] moreover, it would have been extremely difficult to conceive of the gradual development of the sonata-allegro model that was adopted later. A significant feature defining early-classical sonata forms is the polarizing of tonalities in the exposition (major tonic and major dominant or minor tonic and parallel major tonic), which seems far more appropriate and better justified than the principle of thematic dualism (see Dahlhaus 1978).[24] Even in the so-called monothematic sonatas and symphonies of Haydn the area of the dominant (or the parallel in minor) constitutes a dissonant area in the exposition; the second theme may appear in the main key, if the key of the dominant becomes the basis for the epilogue.

While centering our attention on the transformations in Chopin’s approach to the sonata genre as presented in his output, I would like first to point out the connections and tensions emerging between the norms and their individual realizations. I do not equate this norm with the abstract theoretical constructions, but following Leonard Meyer (1989) I assume that the norms exist as a result of musical experiences (the knowledge of styles inherited from the past) and that they constitute a particular repertoire of possibilities that are at the disposal of the composer who makes particular, conscious selections from this reportoire.[25] In every style and in every epoch, to continue Meyer’s thought, there exists a certain repertoire of universally applicable means and a certain, limited number of rules which define a given style. However, the number of compositional strategies is infinite, and therefore various realizations of the same norms may exist within the confines of one style. Individuation, on the other hand, is connected with individual solutions that are a result of the conscious activities of a composer, which are, nonetheless, not entirely free. Instead, they are somehow connected to the found norms, appearing, as it were, as their new realizations, modifications or expansions. These norms do not have to lead to the creation of a new universal norm, or to the change of style, since they could remain solely among the aspects and characteristics of a compositional idiom.

It is obviously very difficult to reconstruct, on the basis of the analysis or secondary sources, Chopin’s creative thinking and the degree of his theoretical awareness. It is also difficult to ascertain what in his style stems from an intuitive acceptance of tradition and what stems from a creative transformation of this tradition, or is even an original compositional gesture. Finally, it is still more difficult to point to the reasons for these transformations, and to answer the question of whether these transformations are a result of internal laws of development of musical style, or whether they emerged under the influence of external factors. All the statements and solutions presented here have only an approximate, hypothetical character.


All the authors of studies of Chopin’s sonatas suggest the existence of a connection between his Sonata in C Minor and Elsner’s compositional school. Rosen expresses doubt as tho whether the essence of the sonata form as such was comprehended in the Warsaw school: “They evidently did not have very clear ideas about sonatas art there in Warsaw” (Rosen 1988). [26] Opieński assumes that the point of departure for Elsner’s composition teaching was the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart, not those of Beethoven. One should add that Elsner based his teaching in a greater measure on the compositional practice of these classical composers than on the codified descriptions of the sonata form by, for instance, Koch, Galeazzi, or Gervasoni. [27] In any case, Elsner’s own compositions, which confirm the universal practice, testify to his awareness of the sonata form. Alina Nowak-Romanowicz,[28] points to the classical regularity of Elsner’s sonata structures, providing proof that in the Warsaw Szkoła Główna Muzyki [Main Music School] the principles of the sonata form were very well known, despite Rosen’s suspicions. This regularity pertains to the clear division of the form, the schematic nature of the period structure and the tonal relationship between the themes in the exposition and in the recapitulation (major tonic—major dominant in the exposition and the unification of the key scheme in the recapitulation with a return to the main key). The characteristic details of Elsner’s sonatas, emphasized by Nowak-Romanowicz are also the motivic kinship of the main and secondary themes and the appearance, directly after the presentation of the first theme, of a “new” thematic idea also in the principal key—this gesture is probably borrowed from Mozart (actually it is derived from the practice of the Italian masters). It is significant, in any case, that a “second thought” of the main theme [“secondo motivo”] appears in the model of the sonata form described by Galeazzi. [29]

Therefore, sources for the non-schematic nature of Chopin’s Sonata in C Minor can not be discovered in his educational gaps or lack of knowledge about the works of the classical masters. On the one hand, the formal scheme had not yet been sanctioned by theory to the degree that it would be later, especially after the publication of the studies by Reicha, Czerny, and, in particular, A. B. Marx.[30] On the other hand, there is no reason to consider a sonata composed in 1829 from the point of view of 18th-century music theory. It is known that Chopin tried to avoid ready-made solutions and that he was not forced to follow them by Elsner.[31]

The most striking feature of Chopin’s Sonata in C Minor—a feature which is also the most divergent from the norms—is not the assumed monothematic character but rather the absence of key changes in the exposition. The second characteristic feature, which stems from the first, is the lack of prominence of the second theme, i.e., its absorption by the unified motivic stream. This feature has caused differences in the interpretation of the exposition by a number of Polish scholars (e.g., Chomiński and Gołąb).[32] The same aspect of this piece also led to claims that Chopin did not understand the sonata form. Despite their differences, both Chomiński and Gołab point out that the basic material for the sonata is provided by two motives appearing in the first measures of the introduction and labeled here as motives a and b (See Example 1).

The first section of the exposition (mm. 17-24) is based on motive b while the second section (mm. 25-30) on motive a. Both sections are in the same key. In mm. 31-43 a repetition of these sections occurs with small modifications. While not denying the segmentation of form into phases proposed by Gołąb, we should complement his segmentation by a statement that the main theme consists of two parts in the same key, similar to the examples from Italian masters mentioned earlier, to the schema proposed by Galeazzi, and to works by Mozart and Elsner. The transition is based on harmonic progressions and chromatic passages. New material, which could be interpreted as the traditional second theme, enters at m. 59, also in the key of C Minor. This material, however, does not introduce distinctly contrasting elements, but rather indicates a transitory character; the same character can be distinguished in the closing group. We should note that Reicha points to the possibility that a second theme may belong to the idea-type he called idees accessoires. [33] Therefore, in this case Chopin does not transcend the received norms, even though these were not the norms of the sonata form universally accepted later. Nonetheless, the absence of key contrast in the exposition may be surprising, especially since Chopin moves this contrast to the recapitulation. The key scheme of the exposition and the recapitulation in this work is as follows (See Figure 2):

Figure 2 (Table 4): Captions for columns: Introduction / Main theme, motive b / Main theme, motive a / Transition / Second Theme / Epilogue. Captions for rows: Exposition / Recapitulation.

The keys appearing in the recapitulation (minor dominant and its parallel minor) are not distant, but they are typical for the development, rather than the recapitulation. One may conclude (similarly to Reicha’s conception), that in Chopin’s Sonata in C Minor the development and the recapitulation constitute one, integral whole. The novelty introduced by Chopin was the absence of key contrast in the exposition, which was compensated for by the differentiation between the thematic parts (tonally stable) and the transitory parts (tonally unstable). In its proportions, the Sonata in C Minor does not differ from classical sonatas, i.e., the development and the recapitulation together form the longer part (not counting the repeats) in the proportion of 1:2. Each segment of the form takes about one-third of the whole ;the recapitulation is somewhat shorter and begins roughly three-fourths through the movement (the repeated exposition lasts for 89 measures; the development for 90 measures and the recapitulation for 70 measures). When one takes into account the repetitions, the formal proportion between the exposition, on the one hand, and the development and recapitulation on the other is 1:1 (178 measures versus 160 measures).

Chopin’s subsequent works in sonata form confirm his knowledge of classical rules and proportions of form, and confirm that this knowledge was coupled with a conscious avoidance of typical tonal contrasts in the exposition. In the Trio in G Minor for violin, cello and piano, Op. 8, the first theme also consists of two parts related to each other in terms of their motivic content. Both parts appear in the main key of G Minor (mm. 1-8 and mm. 9-28). The transition based on harmonic progressions does not introduce a modulation; also the second theme (mm. 53-60), while more prominently marked than in the Sonata in C Minor (but short, consisting of 8 measures only), does not bring tonal contrast. In the closing section of the exposition, however, the second idea from the first theme appears in the key of E-flat Major in the antecedent and in the key of G Minor in the consequent. This gesture resembles one used by Haydn.[34] In the recapitulation both parts of the main theme return according to the rules—in G Minor—while the second theme (actually an incomplete form of it) is in D Minor, and the second appearance of the first theme takes place in the key of B-flat Major. Only in the coda is there a unity of keys.

Already in the Sonata in C Minor Chopin revealed his ability to derive themes from basic motivic cells. This fact, perhaps, reveals his connection to the North German sonata tradition, which was characterized by the unity of thematic material and homogeneity of expression, while maintaining an individuality of themes and the potential for development. [35] Also in the Trio, despite a more distinct segmentation of the form, the tendency towards unity is maintained; especially in the themes of the first movement. Also, in the subsequent movement, the same motivic cells are repeated: (a) the introductory motive, ascending on the scale degrees (and in inversion, creating a characteristic cadential formula), (b) the intervals of the fourth and the fifth which provide the basis of the second idea in the main theme and the second theme in the finale. (see Example 2):

Chopin introduced key contrasts for the first time between themes in the exposition of the Piano Concerto in F Minor, Op. 21 (1829); moreover, the contrasts follow classical rules: F Minor for the first subject and A-flat Major for the second subject. However, in the recapitulation, after the first theme which is shortened to mere four measures, the second theme enters in the same key as in the exposition (!), only in the closing segment does it modulate to F Minor. In the Piano Concerto in E Minor, the second theme appears in E Major, that is again in a key traditionally reserved for the recapitulation. This theme appears in the recapitulation in the key of G Major; thus Chopin completely reverses the relationship between exposition and recapitulation.

A question arises whether these kinds of innovations in the domain of tonal relationships in the sonata form may be justified by artistic reasons, or whether they should be seen as proof of a lack of professionalism and craftsmanship. Obviously, Chopin’s indifference to, or contrariness toward, tonal contrasts may have been a result of his boredom with the rules and a conscious attempt at breaking them. Here, I will quote a fragment of Chopin’s letter to Tytus Wojciechowski—a letter concerning not the issues of form, but the instrumentation of the Concerto in E Minor, yet indicating this possibility: [36]

Perhaps it is a wrong thing, but why should one be ashamed of writing wrongly despite of one’s knowledge [Z. H.’s emphasis], only the result will show whether it was a mistake or not. In this probably you may notice my inclination to do wrongly despite my will.

On the other hand, however, Chopin’s setup clearly indicates his understanding of sonata-allegro as a binary form, in which the recapitulation constitutes a continuation of the development, hence the possibility of continuing a typical “developmental” gesture, i.e., transposition to a different key. In this way, the recapitulation does not become a realm of literal repetitions of sections from the exposition.

The issue of key in Chopin’s sonata allegro forms is also connected to another characteristic feature, the expansion of the dimensions of the form, which was in turn influenced by the development of the piano texture and instrumental virtuosity. The virtuosic, figurative sections required a counter-balance in the form of more developed thematic fragments. According to the classical norms, the exposition was not supposed to include developmental elements; for instance Reicha in his treatise does not recommend such means. [37] Chopin expands the dimensions of the themes on the basis of an additive principle, adding periods and, at times, introducing direct repetitions, as in the Sonata in C Minor. In all the discussed sonata-allegro forms the principal theme encloses two segments in the same key, similar to some sonatas by Mozart, Elsner, and to the schema put forward by Galeazzi. However, the way in which Chopin applies this method of expanding the scope of the principal subject is different in every composition. If, for instance in the Sonata in C Minor the second segment is a kind of a complementation, in the Trio or in the Piano Concerto in F Minor the first segment acquires the character of an introduction with only the second segment constituting the principal thematic idea. In the Piano Concerto in E Minor one may describe these two segments as equally important. Simultaneously, in both Concerti and the Trio it is significant that a lyrical cantilena is introduced within the framework of the main theme. Therefore, there are no elements of contrast between the main and the second theme; rather, such contrasts may be seen to exist either between the first and second part of the main theme (e.g., in the Trio, the risoluto and the espressivo), or between the thematic segments (frequently marked by Chopin as dolce or espressivo) and the virtuosic, figurative transitions (marked con fuoco or leggiero). The dramaturgy of the sonata allegro in Chopin’s music differs significantly from that of the classical sonatas. In Chopin’s model, the exposition presents thematic ideas (tonally stable) interlaced with figurative, virtuosic segments serving to dynamize the form through reliance on rhythmic and harmonic motion. The recapitulation had, on the one hand, a stabilizing character – through the return of principal thematic ideas and domination of the main key, on the other hand, it continued certain features of the development. Full stability was only reached in the final part of the recapitulation or the coda (e.g., in the Trio).

A significant issue in Chopin’s early sonatas is the interpretation of the finale forms. The studies by Opieński and Chomiński include statements that Chopin’s knowledge of the rules of thematic duality is revealed in the finale of the Sonata in C Minor. [38] While noting the existence of the key and theme contrasts (C Minor and G Minor), these authors did not further investigate the details of the finale’s structure. In contrast to my predecessors, I would be inclined to define this finale as a type of a rondo, similar to the form identified by Reicha as “coupe de rondeau.” [39] Each of the four parts of this rondo consists of two segments: a thematic segment and a figurative-developmental segment, which also contributes additional thematic ideas. The schema of the finale of the Sonata in C Minor can be outlined in the following table (See Figure 3):

In the third part a kind of recapitulation appears, with the return of themes and repetitions; because of that the rondo has certain sonata traits. In the Trio in G Minor the final rondo is simpler and less expansively structured, but similarly to the finale of the Sonata in C Minor, it features figurative-developmental sections after thematic sections, with themes appearing in an identical key relationship, i.e., G Minor—D Minor; and in the recapitulation G Minor and C Minor.


One should not overestimate the gap between Chopin’s Piano Concerti and the Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 that is often emphasized in the scholarly literature of this subject. This gap is supposed to prove Chopin’s apparent lack of interest in greater cyclical forms and his preference for miniatures; this hypothesis also underlines the principles on which the periodization of his output was based. It is true, however, that in the 1830s there was a general turn away from the genre of the sonata. Newman quotes excerpts from French, English and German criticism of the time, stating that the sonata was passee, that it was discredited in favor of smaller forms such as the fantasia, capriccio, or stylized dances. [40] The return and flourishing of the sonata occurs only in the 1860s and 1870s. It is also true that in Chopin’s output before 1839, small forms dominated—mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, and songs—but he also composed the Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23 (1833), the Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20 (1833), the Scherzo in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 (1837), Allegro de concert, Op. 46 (probably planned as a piano concerto), and other one-movement compositions that included elements of the sonata in their formal conception, i.e., the contrasts of themes and keys and developmental techniques. These works constitute a typically romantic effort to express oneself in “new,” more freely shaped, forms. Nonetheless, Schumann [41] accurately observed that the sonata, even in this period of its decreased popularity, still remained the measure of a composer’s craftsmanship, ability, and talent, and that it remained a certain test of the composer’s creative potential. Therefore, the lack of interest in the sonata form in the 1830s and the fact that Chopin returned to this form at the end of the 1830s, does not testify about the existence of a turning point in his output from that period. What is more significant are the changes in his compositional thinking, the new choices and strategies which led to the transformation of the form of the sonata-allegro.

While discussing the group of Chopin’s late sonatas (Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58, and the Sonata in G Minor for Piano and Cello,, Op. 65), one should take into consideration the following factors: (1) common traits and differences with respect to the first group of works adhering to model of the sonata form, (2) the existence of a formal invariant, Chopin’s own model of the sonata allegro form and the sonata cycle; (3) the issue of transformations of this model within individual compositions.

It is easy to notice that certain external traits of the sonata, i.e., the four-movement cycle and the structure of the sonata allegro form, do not change in the three late sonatas. Nonetheless, a different model of the sonata allegro becomes stabilized in these works; this model is defined by such features as: proportions between components of the form (exposition, development, recapitulation), thematic dualism, the particular character of the second theme, the tri-partite character of the exposition, the beginning of the recapitulation from second-theme material, the return to the first theme at the end of the recapitulation, the tonal relationships in the exposition and the recapitulation, the motivic unity of the themes in the first movement and, possibly, in the whole cycle.

Three late sonatas display, above all, a distinct binary division with exact proportions. The exposition constitutes the first part, the development and the recapitulation are the second part, divided into two respective sections. This arrangement closely adheres to the theoretical conception of Reicha (“la grande coupe binaire”); such a bi-partite character can also be noticed in the Sonata in C Minor and the Trio (especially in the treatment of the recapitulation), but now the proportions of the parts are changed. Also at this moment Chopin changes the guidelines proposed by Reicha. What matters in this case is not the theoretical issue of the bi- or tri-partite nature of the whole sonata-allegro form (as is well known, opinions are divided in this respect). The binary character of Chopin’s sonata-allegro seems intended because the proportions that are consequently applied in his works differ from the proportions appearing in sonatas by others, both earlier composers and his contemporaries. Newman includes the following table which presents the proportions between the exposition, development and recapitulation in works by several romantic composers (See Figure 4). [42]

The basis for these calculations was provided by the last two sonatas by Chopin. The dimensions of the exposition in Chopin’s works are evidently larger than in works by other composers; they approach 50% while works by others feature expositions that constitute about 40% of their length. It is interesting to note that in subsequent sonatas by Chopin, the dimensions of the exposition increase, so that in the Sonata in B-flat Minor there are 104 measures of exposition and 138 measures of development with recapitulation (the exposition takes 43% of the whole work); in the Sonata in B Minor the exposition lasts for 91 measures and the development plus recapitulation for 113 measures (the exposition takes 44.6% of the duration of the piece); in the Sonata in G Minor the exposition lasts for 114 measures while the development with recapitulation for 122 (48%). Obviously the proportions are changed even further if the repeats of the expositions are taken into account. In the traditional sonata form (also in Chopin’s sonatas in the 1820’s) there is a proportion of 1:1 between the exposition and the development with recapitulation (this proportion is most distinct in Schumann’s music). In contrast, in Chopin’s sonatas a golden ratio appears, with greater or smaller differences of detail. For instance in the Sonata in B Minor the point of the golden section falls on measure no. 181, that is the beginning of the development (the whole lasts for 293 measures, the repeated exposition for 180 measures; 293 times 0.618 equals 181). In the Sonata in B-flat Minor, the difference between the point of the golden section and the beginning of the development is 7 measures; in the Sonata in G Minor this difference is 14 measures. In addition, the golden section plays a certain role in the structure of the exposition: the segment of the first theme is the shorter part while the segment of the second theme with the epilogue is the longer part; this proportion is the most exactly articulated in the Sonata in B-flat Minor where the exposition lasts for 104 measures, the point of the inverted golden section falls at 39,7 measure (104 times 0.382) and the second theme appears in m. 40. In the sonatas in B Minor and G Minor the differences between the point of the inverted golden section and the entry of the second theme are 6 and 11 measures, respectively.

Beginning with the Sonata in B-flat Minor, Chopin’s model of the sonata allegro contains certain classical invariants, which belong to a well-grounded tradition, as well as individual features perhaps not introduced by Chopin for the first time, but absorbed and adapted by him in such a fashion that these traits became elements of his personal compositional idiom. This model is repeated in the three sonatas, though there are slight divergencies between them (See Figure 5).

Chopin’s formal schema. First row: Exposition—Development—Recapitulation; Second row: 1st theme (minor tonic), 2nd theme (parallel major), epilogue (parallel major); in two parts, ending on major dominant; 2nd theme (major tonic), epilogue (major tonic), a reminiscence of 1st theme (major tonic).

All three sonatas are kept in minor keys, therefore the tonal relationships between the themes in the expositions and in the recapitulations are also similar. It is important to notice what was earlier emphasized by Rosen, that there is a regularity in key relationships that did not occur in Chopin’s earlier works. [43] The second theme appears in the exposition in the key of the parallel major; this theme appears in the recapitulation in the key of the major tonic. Only in the Sonata in G Minor does the epilogue appear in a key different from the second theme. The exposition ends with the chord of the upper dominant to the main key (in the Sonata in B-flat Minor it is the dominant of the parallel tonic). The development reveals a clear division into two parts, with internal differentiation into phrases; it ends with a longer segment based on the function of the dominant to the main key, preparing for the appearance of the recapitulation. After the repetition of the material from the second theme and the epilogue, a reminiscence of the first theme appears in the closing passages of the movement; this reminiscence is, however, considerably abbreviated, and marked stretto (in the Sonata in B-flat Minor and in G Minor).

In contrast to the Sonata in C Minor, both later piano sonatas strongly differentiate between the character of the first and second themes; their manifest conflict is articulated by the contrast of modes (major/minor), the tonal centers (minor tonic and its parallel), melodic material, texture, emotional character, and even the formative principles. It is easy to conclude that the second theme in the Sonatas in B-flat Minor and B Minor constitutes a certain novum in the sonata genre resulting from Chopin’s preference for crossing different genres, which was noted by earlier scholars, such as Zofia Lissa. [44] Especially in the Sonata in B Minor the second theme has the clear features of a nocturne. Chopin’s themes do not belong to the category of the so-called “secondary themes” (in German: “Nebensatz” or “Seitenthema”), but in respect to the function that they play in the whole, they are not in any way less important than first themes; both themes could be called, to use Reicha’s term, idee mere. Thus, in the sonata allegro form Chopin defines a certain equilibrium between the expansive, developmental first theme and the lyrical, cantabile second theme, which is constructed as a period and shaped in a variational, rather then evolutionary, fashion.

The character of the second theme also defines the arrangement of the recapitulation which is typical for Chopin. Beginning the recapitulation from the second theme while bypassing the first theme was not Chopin’s invention. Protopopov indicates that one may notice numerous such examples in pre-classical sonatas, e.g., by Scarlatti. Chomiński enlists Weber’s Sonata in C Major, Op. 24 as a pattern that Chopin could have followed. [45] Nonetheless, already in his Traite Reicha mentions such a possibility. The stereotypical explanation, cited by Reicha, connects the beginning of the recapitulation from the second theme to the domination of the first theme in the development. This explanation does not seem to suffice in the case of Chopin’s sonatas—in the Sonata in B Minor, for instance, the second theme also plays a significant role in the development. The reason for Chopin’s atypical layout of the recapitulation is rooted in the different dramaturgy of the form (which, by the way, varies from one sonata to another). In the piano sonatas in B-flat Minor and in B Minor, the character of the recapitulation stems from the stabilizing function of the second theme which removes the tensions and conflicts of the development. The repetition of the first theme would bring a continuation of these conflicts and not their solution; the conflict could not have been alleviated solely by the introduction of a unified key. We should also remember that already in his first works in the sonata form, Chopin tried to avoid exact repetitions in the recapitulation. In the later sonatas the elements of the first theme are introduced only at the end of the recapitulation (in the stretto) and these elements bring in a recurrence of increased dramatic tension leading toward the next part of the cycle.

It is obvious that in doing so, Chopin does not change the basic principle of dualism in the sonata allegro form. He merely intensifies the contrasting character of the themes; moreover, the increased dimensions and new character of the second theme (which is, as it were, “a form in a form”) cause an interruption in the dynamic development carried by the first theme. In the Sonata in B-flat Minor this method of continuous “slowing down” or “halting” the expansive nature of the theme is obvious with all the elements of the allegro, even in its first four measures. The harmonic content of this section may be reduced to the sequence of the major dominant of major dominant with an added sixth of the moving to the Minor tonic. Other scholars have already pointed out the similarity of this gesture to the initial measures of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111. [46] However, the “realization” is divergent from the “implication” (to use expressions borrowed from Narmour, 1977).[47] (See Example 3).

The fifth, C-sharp – G-sharp, superimposed on the E in the bass, harmonically means the alteration of the fifth in the chord (G-sharp is a leading tone of A and C-sharp=D-flat ). In the presented textural arrangement a consonant triadic sonority arises, C-sharp—E—G-sharp; its role is to counterbalance the activity of the dissonant chord. This temporary stabilization on the consonant sonority still further increases the character of tension. Thus, the principle is carried out in the whole movement of the sonata. The increasing dynamic curve of the exposition is thus broken up through stabilization of the secondary theme; it is only continued in the epilogue. The principle of slowing down and delaying of the development also rules in the development; e.g., in the first segment, an interlacing of short, restless, syncopated motives of the first theme and the motives from the introduction of a contrasting character. In the following segment (mm. 122-125, 130-133), the falling melodic line is juxtaposed with the nervous rhythms in the left hand; and both four-measure units constitute a counterbalance to the progressions that follow them and lead to a culmination. The recapitulation, with the predominance of the second theme, introduces a certain equilibrium of two emotional qualities into this pattern.

The differences between the Sonata in B-flat Minor and the Sonata in B Minor define the essence of transformation in Chopin’s approach to the sonata form. The similarities between the realizations of the model of the sonata-allegro itself are obvious, despite certain small differences, e.g., the use of different harmonic functions in the closing section of the exposition. The second theme in the Sonata in B Minor, for instance, articulates the same principles of dualism and contrast that engage all the possible means as appeared in the Sonata in B-flat Minor. The basic difference lies in the transitions between the themes. In the Sonata in B- flat Minor the transition is virtually non-existent: the exposition essentially consists of the juxtaposition of two thematic and tonal planes which are connected by a short modulation. The expansiveness of the first theme in this work stems from its rhythmic and dynamic features, not from its harmonic traits. In the Sonata in B Minor, however, the harmonic evolution begins already at the closure of the first group of eight measures; after a fragment based on chromatic juxtapositions of chords, the music transverses through the keys of B-flat Major, its Minor parallel(G Minor) and, finally, the Major= subdominant in the key of E Minor, that is in the minor dominant of the main key. The polyphonic transition remains in the key of D Minor (m. 23-28). It serves as a intermediary between the first and the second theme; the entry of the latter is prepared by a prolongation of the dominant. Rosen (1988, 390-392) indicates that this compositional strategy has a different goal than a simple modulation to the second theme; here, the harmonic evolution becomes a goal in itself and the transition acquires an independent character. [48] Simultaneously, chromaticism strongly intensifies in these sections (see Gołąb).[49] Thus, Chopin extends the polarization of modes, keys and expressions to the polarization of chromatic and diatonic textures. Rosen suggests that the model for these aspects of Chopin’s Sonata in B Minor was provided by Hummel’s Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 81. In Hummel’s work a harmonically-volatile segment appears between the first and the second theme. However, Rosen’s thesis that Chopin could have been influenced only by one, definite model in this Sonata is not entirely convincing. In this period, the expanding harmonic means contributed to the articulation of form by causing a greater “openness” of the first theme.

The closing segment of the exposition in the Sonata in B Minor is also transformed in comparison with the Sonata in B-flat Minor. In the work composed earlier, the closing group increases tonal instability and anxiety; in the Sonata in B Minor this role is taken over by the modulating transition based on harmonic progressions and placed between the second theme and the epilogue. Simultaneously, the epilogue itself, marked dolce, introduces an element of the cantilena continuing the mood of the second subject. On the basis of these features Chomiński claims that “the bourgeois features of the Sonata in B Minor are much more prominent than of the Sonata in B-flat Minor.” [50] While this opinion sounds very negative (and methodologically dated), it emphasizes the intensification of lyrical elements in the Sonata in B Minor. In particular, the epilogue reveals more distinct thematic features and its role stems from a different dramaturgy of the exposition than the one occurring in the Sonata in B-flat Minor. The exposition is polarized into two parts, despite an apparent tri-partite division: the first theme and the transition have an expansive, open character and the second theme and the epilogue introduce lyrical, nocturne-like features.

A similar polarization appears in the development. It is, in principle, bi-partite, with an internal differentiation of phrases. Whereas in the Sonata in B-flat Minor a culmination follows a phase of increasing tension, then giving way to a gradual decrease of intensity, in the Sonata in B Minor a return of the second, cantilene-like theme provides a surprise at the moment of the expected culmination. Only the closing segment of the development follows a similar pattern to the one presented in the Sonata in B-flat Minor: a wave of increased tension followed by a prolongation of the major dominant in the key of the second theme of the recapitulation (B Major). Chominski assumes that at the moment when the key of B Major is reached in the development (m. 135) and when the motives from segments of the main theme enter (m. 137) we are already dealing with the recapitulation, which—in his interpretation—begins an abbreviated version of the first theme. [51] His conception is difficult to accept because in all of Chopin’s sonatas the recapitulation is always preceded by a extended prolongation of the major dominant; in the Sonata in B Minor such a dominant prolongation occurs no earlier than in mm. 142-150. To locate the beginning of the recapitulation at the moment indicated by Chomiński would, therefore, be completely unjustified dramaturgically.

In addition, it is worthwhile to consider the harmonic structure of Chopin’s developments. At first approach, this structure seems to be very convoluted and very distant from theoretical premises. Modulations, both in classical and early-romantic developments do not follow a free course, but proceed according to a concrete plan, for instance by using related keys that are separated by the intervals of the fifth or the third. In contrast to this model, Chopin’s developments bewilder with sudden modulatory turns and with establishing connections between distant keys. Nonetheless, one may find a logic in his harmonic progressions. In important, crucial points of the development keys related to the main key appear according to classical rules. For instance in the Sonata in B-flat Minor the development begins in the key of F-sharp Minor (i.e., G-flat Minor) and the successive entries of new segments are marked by the keys of C Minor, F Minor, G Minor, and finally C-flat Major (the lower mediant of the subdominant in B-flat Major, i.e., the Neapolitan chord) preceding the emergence of the dominant in B-flat Major. The tonal center is not stabilized between these nodal points and one may note the incessant flow of the harmonic progressions (e.g., at the beginning of the development) or the sequences of chords that are mostly related by thirds in the second part of the development.

In the Sonata in B Minor the first part of the development in particular belongs among the most harmonically convoluted musical fragments in all of Chopin’s works. Only its beginning includes related keys: F-sharp Minor, B Minor, and G-sharp Minor. After that, there is a sudden enharmonic modulation to F Major in m. 104; following a complicated chromatic passage through a series of keys on the flat side (m. 106-109, see the passage and its harmonic reduction in Example 4 below), the music reaches first the key of D-flat Major, in which the second theme appears, and finally the key of E-flat Major (both keys are enharmonically connected to the main key of the Sonata). Therefore, in the second part of the development (from the moment when the second theme appears) the tonal centers are stabilized. In contrast, the first segment is generally unstable. This is one more proof for Chopin’s conscious creation of the dramaturgical conception of this work.

The chromatic passage mentioned above deserves a closer scrutiny; while this sequence of arpeggiated chords seemingly does not have any functional connections, it actually represents a chromatic passage of voices moving in a descending direction, the harmonization of this passage is based on the enharmonic polyvalence of meanings of diminished chords and of chords with altered fifths (See Example 4):


The Sonata in G Minor for piano and cello, composed shortly after the Sonata in B Minor again bewilders with the diversity of its formal solutions while preserving the same, unchangeable architectural framework. First of all, Chopin abandons the principle of sharply-delineated contrasts by creating a sonata-allegro form that still includes many themes, yet is more homogeneous in its expressive aspects. The main theme consists of two ideas in the same key of G Minor, both lyrical and cantabile (mm. 1-20 and 24-41); these ideas are separated by a short transition. A delayed second motive plays an essential role in their integration; this motive appears in m. 2 and 4 of the piano part, m. 8 and 10 in the cello part, as well as—in inversion—as the motive opening the second thematic idea in m. 24. One could say that in structuring the first theme Chopin returns to a formal conception from the first period of his creative output (the main theme consisting of two ideas in the same key; the homogeneity of expression). The difference between the Sonata in G Minor and its predecessors lies in the expansion of the theme into a whole thematic group, on the one hand, and on the transformation of the syntax, on the other hand. Only at the beginning does one perceive the “pulsation” of segments consisting of 2, 4 and 8 measures; such phrasing structure is typical in Chopin’s music. In the following passage the cadences are not simultaneous in the parts of the cello and the piano; at the same time, Chopin avoids closing musical ideas with cadences that consist of the major dominant resolving to the minor tonic. Moreover, he does not separate individual segments with pauses or rests, thus creating fluid transitions between subsequent phrases. In Chopin literature this melodic continuum received the name of Chopin’s “unendliche Melodie” (term from Rothstein 1988). [52] The fluid motion is articulated, to a large extent, by harmonic means; despite the general expansion of the repertoire of harmonic means the elements of developmental harmony do not occur within the main theme (as they do in the Sonata in B Minor).

The introduction of the second theme is both original and new. The arpeggiated transition, bringing in at first a shift to the key of A-flat Major, ends with a return of the key of G Minor and a suspension of motion on the major dominant—that is with a way of introducting a new theme that was characteristic for Chopin. Meanwhile, however, an eight-measure modulatory passage appears after a pause (it is again marked dolce); this passage leads to the key of the second theme, i.e., B Major. The entry of the second theme in a key that has not been stabilized after the expected resolution of the dominant brings in a degree of surprise; Chopin’s way of beginning the theme with a modulatory passage is also a new gesture. The second theme is marked by a noticeable intensification of harmonic motion, similar to the one occuring in the transition to the second theme during the stabilization of the key of B-flat Major (in mm. 84-87); a modulation to the key of D Minor follows and a new theme appears with an expressive marking of dolce which is characteristic for most themes of this sonata. This time, however, the epilogue of the exposition becomes a third theme: it is characterized by a greater independence than the typical themes of closing groups (i.e., it is an “idee mere” and not an “idee accessoire”). Therefore, we are dealing with an exposition that includes three themes and three keys (G Minor—B-flat Major—D Minor). Expositions of a similar type occur already in Schubert’s sonatas. [53] The layout of the development in Chopin’s Sonata in G Minor resembles the developments in both piano sonatas by Chopin discussed earlier: the intensification towards the climax in the first phase, the appearance of the second idea from the main theme in the key of D Minor at the climax (forte) followed by the idea’s transposition to the key of E Minor. The second wave of intensified tension leads to the appearance of the first motive from the main theme in a stretto followed by a phase of decrease (diminuendo) based on the sustained dominant in A Minor that serves to prepare the recapitulation. Here, Chopin repeats a gesture from the exposition. The key of A Minor does not turn out to be the key of the recapitulation. The entry of the second theme after the return of the dominant Major in A Minor has a modulatory character and leads to the tonic major, i.e., the key of G Major (in m. 185). The third theme, however, recurs in the main key of G Minor. In this way, Chopin emphasizes the expressive homogeneity of this movement. In the conclusion—as in the previous sonatas—the initial ideas from the main theme make a brief appearance in stretto. Even if the basic Chopinesque architectural model is repeated in the Sonata in G Minor, its realization leads to a different internal form and to different solutions of the dramatic flow of the work.


The subsequent movements in the sonata cycle only seemingly are subjected to unified formal principles; in every sonata Chopin endows these movements with different characteristics. Thus, the character of the scherzo is completely different in the Sonata in B-flat Minor (dramatic, filled with contrasts, resembling self-standing scherzos by Chopin) than in the Sonata in B Minor (light, ephemeral) or in the Sonata in G Minor (lyrical, without strong contrasts). The slow movements also reveal diverse physiognomies in each of these sonatas: a funeral march, a nocturne, and a brief intermezzo in the Sonata in G Minor. In contrast, the finales of both piano sonatas, in B-flat Minor and in B Minor, share many common features both with each other and with the sonata rondos from Chopin’s early period. Nonetheless, even in these works one may distinguish diverse formal solutions. For instance a binary layout appears in the Sonata in B Minor (it occurs in Chopin’s earlier music; see Figure 6).

However, in comparison with rondos from the Sonata in C Minor and the Trio in G Minor, in the Sonata in B Minor themes do not appear in the main key and are presented in transposition to different keys (E Minor and E-flat Major). Only towards the end does the main key return with its parallel Major variant, G Major. In the Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano the rondo includes three different themes. (See Figure 7):

At the same time, Chopin retains the principle of the sonata recapitulation, i.e., the main theme always returns in the main key.

Only the Sonata in B-flat Minor features a finale that is structured in a different fashion; it is not accidental that Schumann called it “a sphinx.” Cholopov put forward a hypothesis that this finale displays the characteristics of a rondo form. [54] It is difficult to agree with this hypothesis, even though it would have confirmed the existence of a unified model of Chopin’s finales which is presented in my study. It is true that in the finale of the Sonata in B-flat Minor a binary arrangement appears, because in m. 39, that is more or less in the middle of this movement, a kind of recapitulation emerges with the repetition of the first eight measures of this movement. Thematic contrasts and changes of texture occur in other rondos in Chopin’s finales; however, the isomorphic finale of the Sonata in B- flat Minor is closer to Chopin’s evolutionary forms with a hidden periodicity, i.e., to certain preludes and etudes that were composed at the same time (e.g. Prelude in E-flat Minor, and Prelude in E-flat Major from, Op. 28, 1838-39; Etude in B Minor, Op. 25 no. 10, 1835-37).

The issue of integration of Chopin’s sonata cycles often recurs in the literature of the subject. If these sonatas were initially described as amalgams of non-related movements, later authors (e.g. Leichentritt) began to discover their connections to the “principe cyclique.” Opieński and Chomiński reject Leichtentritt’s thesis about the motivic unity of themes in the first movement of the Sonata in B-flat Minor. [55] Meanwhile, the link of these themes via a motivic cell consisting of the intervals of thirds and seconds seems distinct enough to not allow us to deny the possibility of its conscious use as a means of integration, especially that this cell occurs in the Funeral March as well. Since the Funeral March was composed earlier than the other movements of this Sonata, it is highly probable that its melodic line became the source for further thematic ideas. The connection of the beginning of the Finale to the main motive of the whole sonata is more obvious; this connection was already pointed out by scholars researching Chopin’s sonatas. [56] In the Sonata in B Minor integration by means of common intervallic cells plays perhaps a less prominent role; as Chomiński has already pointed out. [57] it appears more prominently in the Sonata in G Minor. In addition to the motive based on seconds which connects all the movements in this sonata cycle, one may also emphasize the integrative role of the rhythmic motive (Beethoven’s “motive of fate”) in the first and the last movements of the Sonata. (See Figure 8):

The method of integrating thematic material with intervallic cells is derived from Beethoven and already appeared in Chopin’s early period. Therefore, it may be described as a characteristic stylistic feature, even though it does not constitute a highly significant factor in the transformations of Chopin’s style. The Sonata in G Minor, for instance, does not constitute an apex in the development of the sonata form in Chopin’s music; it is only one of the varieties of Chopin’s model of the sonata.


The analysis of Chopin’s sonatas leads to the following conclusions:

  1. In all of Chopin’s sonatas the four-movement sonata cycle appears with a stable arrangements of the movement and the sonata-allegro form featuring a classical division into a repeated exposition followed by the development and recapitulation. There are no noticeable attempts at breaking the norms of the genre.
  2. The internal organization of the form in the sonatas provides a basis for distinguishing two main groups of Chopin’s works: the first group including sonata cycles composed before 1830 and the second consisting of three sonatas from the late period.
  3. In the early period Chopin alluded to various traditions of the sonata-allegro form while avoiding the most common schema which was accepted by music theory. His individuality was expressed in his custom of maintaining the expositions in a unified key and of moving the tonal contrasts to the recapitulation.
  4. The transformation of Chopin’s style around the year 1837 probably resulted not from his return to the sonata genre (that he had abandoned in the intervening years), but from the changes in the internal organization of the sonata-allegro form and the simultaneous transformation of musical language.
  5. In Chopin’s late sonatas the model of the sonata-allegro form is stabilized; this model maintains classical traits with a distinct binary division that is defined by the proportions of the forms, key schemes, the habitual beginning of the recapitulation with the second theme, and the appearance of reminiscences from the first theme at the end (in stretto).
  6. Almost all of Chopin’s sonata cycles are marked, to a greater or smaller extent, by a tendency to unify thematic material of the individual movements, or of the whole cycle with recurrent, brief melodic cells.
  7. Independently of the common model that provided a general, compositional framework, each of Chopin’s late sonatas is marked by its individual traits and constitutes a particular variant of the model. The individuation is connected to the transformation of musical language in the late period and to the dramatic conception of the sonata-allegro form and the whole sonata cycle.
  8. As one could assume, the transformation of Chopin’s approach to the sonata form after 1837 resulted from an enrichment of Chopin’s artistic experiences and a deepening of his musical knowledge and his creative experiences after his departure for Paris. Chopin’s creative awareness, despite his attachment to tradition, was shaped by romantic tendencies that inspired a novel way of thinking and stimulated the emergence of individual solutions and concepts. The reasons for this stylistic transformation are, on the one hand, internal-musical and linked to the domain of compositional invention; on the other, they belong in the ideological atmosphere of Chopin’s times and milieu. In respect to sonata forms, Chopin definitely remains in the sphere of classical influences, in the domain of active norms. As a romantic creator, however, he searched for new solutions. That is why each of his sonatas has an individual dramatic form.


[1]. Zdzisław Jachimecki, Chopin. Rys życia i twórczości [Chopin. An outline of life and works] (Kraków: PWM, 1957); Henryk Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina, ich oceny i ich wartość konstrukcyjna” [Chopin’s sonatas, their evaluations and their constructive values], Kwartalnik Muzyczny no. 1 (1928) and no. 2 (1929); Józef Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina [Chopin’s Sonatas] (Kraków: PWM, 1960). [Back]

[2]. Friedrich Niecks, Friedrich Chopin als Mensch und als Musiker, vol. 1-2 (Leipzig, 1890); James Huneker, Chopin. The Man and His Music (New York, 1900); Vincent d’Indy, Cours de composition musicale, vol. 2 (Paris, 1909); Hugo Leichtentritt, Analyse der Chopin’schen Klavierwerken, vols. 1-2 (Berlin, 1921, 1922). [Back]

[3]. August Halm, Von zwei Kulturen der Musik (Munich, 1920); Ernst Kurth, Die romantische Harmonik and ihre Krise in Wagners “Tristan” (Bern-Leipzig, 1920); Hans Mersmann, Angewandte Musikasthetik (Berlin, 1926). [Back]

[4]. Józef Chomiński, Preludia Chopina (Kraków: PWM, 1950); Sonaty Chopina (Kraków: PWM, 1960). [Back]

[5]. Niecks, Chopin als Mensch, 1890, vol. 2, 250; Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina,” 1929, 159. [Back]

[6]. Jachimecki, Chopin, 1957, 279; Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 1960, 255, and 81. [Back]

[7]. Włodzimierz Protopopov, “Forma cyklu sonatowego w utworach F. Chopina,” [The form of sonata cycle in the works by Chopin], in Polsko-rosyjskie miscellanea muzyczne, Zofia Lissa, ed. (Kraków: PWM, 1967), 128-129. [Back]

[8]. Andrzej Chodkowski, “Kilka uwag o Trio fortepianowym Fryderyka Chopina” [Some remarks about Chopin’s Piano Trio], Rocznik Chopinowski vol. 14 (1982). [Back]

[9]. Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina,” 161. Włodzimierz Protopopov, “Nowa interpretacja klasycznych form muzycznych w utworach Chopina” [New interpretation of classical musical forms in the works by Chopin], Rocznik Chopinowski, vol. 19 (1987): 128-9, 26. [Back]

[10]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 276. [Back]

[11]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 225. [Back]

[12]. Leichtentritt, Analysevol. 2, 212 and 250. [Back]

[13]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 176, 190, 195, 201, 249. [Back]

[14]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 259, 333. [Back]

[15]. William S. Newman, The Sonata since Beethoven. A History of the Sonata Idea, vol. 3 (Chapel Hill: Prentice Hall, 1969); Charles Rosen, Sonata Forms (New York and London, 1988). [Back]

[16]. Newman, The Sonata, 109-113. [Back]

[17]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 365. [Back]

[18]. Anton Reicha, Traite de haute composition musicale (Paris, 1824-26); Anton Reicha, Vollstandiges Lehrbuch der musikalischen Composition, vol.4, trans. Carl Czerny (Wien: bei A. Diabelli und Comp, 1834). Reicha, School of Practical Composition, vol. 1-3 (London, 1849); Adolf Bernhard Marx, Die Lehre von der musikalischen Komposition, vol. 3 (Leipzig, 1845).

The term “sonata form” [Sonatenform) was introduced by Czerny in the Appendix of the Translator [Zusatz des Ubersetzers) to the first part of his edition of the treatise by Reicha. This name refers there to the whole sonata cycle and not to the form of the first movement of this cycle, even though Czerny did include a concise description of its structure. The form “sonata form” in reference to the first movement of the whole cycle was probably first used by A.B. Marx; see Ian Bent, “Analysis,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie, ed. (London: McMillan, 1980), vol. 1. [Back]

[19]. Heinrich Christoph Koch, Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition, Vol. 1-3 (Leipzig, Rudolstadt 1782, Leipzig 1787, Leipzig 1793; reprint Hildesheim 1969), 301; Francesco Galeazzi, Elementi teorico-pratici di musica, vol. 2 (Rome, 1796). [Back]

[20]. Carl Dahlhaus, “Der rhetorische Formbegriff H. Ch. Kochs und die Theorie der Sonatenform,” Archiv fur Musikwissenschaft 35, no. 3 (1978): 155-177. [Back]

[21]. Reicha, Traite, vol. 4, 1158-1165. [Back]

[22]. Reicha, Traite, vol. 4, 1163, note. [Back]

[23]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 98. [Back]

[24]. Dahlhaus, “Der rhetorische Formbegriff.” [Back]

[25]. Leonard B. Meyer, Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989). [Back]

[26]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 392. [Back]

[27]. Koch, Versuch; Galeazzi, Elementi; Carlo Gervasoni, La scuola della musica (Piacenza, 1800). [Back]

[28]. Alina Nowak-Romanowicz, Józef Elsner (Kraków: PWM, 1957), 41. [Back]

[29]. Nowak-Romanowicz, Elsner, 42. [Back]

[30]. It is doubtful whether Chopin knew Reicha’s theory in the period of composing his Sonata in C Minor. We have no testimonies to the fact that he learnt about it later, even though from his correspondence with Elsner one may surmise that he was interested in Reicha. While classifying Reicha in the comical category of “shrivelled bottoms” [suszone pupki], Chopin simultaneously stated that “one can learn from their works.” See: Bronisław E. Sydow, ed., Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [Correspondence of F.Ch.], vol. 1 (Warsaw: PIW, 1955), 193, 206. [Back]

[31]. On 27 November 1831 Elsner wrote to Chopin: “In teaching composition one does not need to give recipes, in particular to the disciples whose abilities are apparent, let them find the rules by themselves, so that at times they could transcend themselves, let them have means to discover what was not discover as yet.” See Sydow, Korespondencja vol. 1, 197. [Back]

[32]. Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina,” 154; Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 28-50; Maciej Gołąb, Chromatyka i tonalność w muzyce Chopina [Chromaticism and Tonality in Chopin’s Music] (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1991), 104-108. [Back]

[33]. Reicha, Traite, vol. 4, 1164. [Back]

[34]. Chopin later repeated this gesture in his Allegro de concert where both the first and second themes appear in the key of A Major, while, after a figurative transition the first theme enters again in the key of E Major, i.e. in the key of upper dominant. [Back]

[35]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 133ff. [Back]

[36]. Sydow, Korespondencja, vol. 1, 125. [Back]

[37]. Reicha, Traite, 1159. [Back]

[38]. Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina,” 154; Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 61-80. [Back]

[39]. Reicha, Traite, 1169. [Back]

[40]. Newman, The Sonata, 39. [Back]

[41]. For a discussion of Schumann’s case see Newman, The Sonata, 41-42. [Back]

[42]. Newman, The Sonata, 148. [Back]

[43]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 392. [Back]

[44]. Zofia Lissa, ed., The Book of the First International Musicological Congress Devoted to the Works of Frederick Chopin, Warsaw 16-22 February 1960 (Warsaw: PWN, 1963), 207-212. [Back]

[45]. Protopopov, “Nowa interpretacja,” 26; Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 21. [Back]

[46]. Protopopov, “Nowa interpretacja,” 27. [Back]

[47]. Eugene Narmour, Beyond Schenkerism: The Need for Alternatives in Music Analysis (Chicago, London, 1977). [Back]

[48]. Rosen, Sonata Forms, 390-392. [Back]

[49]. Maciej Gołąb, Chromatyka, 171. [Back]

[50]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 201. [Back]

[51]. Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 212-123. [Back]

[52]. William Rothstein, “Phrase Rhythm in Chopin’s Nocturnes and Mazurkas,” in Chopin Studies, ed. Jim Samson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Jurij Cholopov, O zasadach kompozycji Chopina: zagadka finału Sonaty b-moll, Rocznik Chopinowski, vol. 19 (1987). [Back]

[53]. See Rosen, Sonata Forms, 353-364. [Back]

[54]. Jurij Cholopov, “O zasadach kompozycji Chopina: Zagadka finalu Sonaty b-moll [About Chopin’s compositional principles: the mystery of the finale of the Sonata in B-flat Minor], Rocznik Chopinowski vol. 19 (1987: 233-234. [Back]

[55]. Opieński, “Sonaty Chopina,” 68; Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 106-107. [Back]

[56]. See Leichentritt, Analyse, 212-213, 250ff. Also see Chomiński, Sonaty Chopina, 164; Cholopov, “O zasadach,” 220-221. [Back]

[57]. Chomiński, 1960, 305ff. [Back]

Prof. dr. hab. Zofia Helman (b. 1937) studied musicology at the University of Warsaw where she received her doctorate in 1967 for Aspects of Karol Szymanowski’s Compositional Techniques. In 1980 she completed a pioneering study of Neoclassicism in Polish Music of the 20th Century (published in Polish in 1985, by PWM Edition). In 1999 her monograph of Polish composer Roman Palester (who was blacklisted by the communist government in Poland) was published by Musica Iagellonica in Kraków. Helman edited five volumes of Complete Works of Karol Szymanowski for PWM Edition (Stabat Mater, 1965; King Roger, 1973; Demeter i Agawe, 1975; Veni Creator and Litania do Marii Panny, 1975; String Quartets, 1976). She published numerous articles on the music of Szymanowski, as well as Baird, Chopin, Janacek, Lutosławski, Poulenc, Palester, Prokofiev, Penderecki, Stravinsky, Tansman, Wagner, and compositional techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries (her publications appear mostly in Polish; also in German, French and Italian). Since 1959 Helman lectured at the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw; since 1990 she has been a full professor there, between 1991 and 1997 she served as the Institute’s director.