In Italian, a Scherzo is a joke. When Chopin named his Opus 20 Scherzo No. 1, Robert Schumann didn’t get it: “How is gravity to clothe itself if jest goes about in dark veils?”
Some of Chopin’s favorite forms - The Nocturnes, the Ballades, the Mazurkas are all pretty much of a piece. United by rhythm, tempo, time signature, or mood. Then there are scherzos. Chopin wrote four, and the first three are anything but the fizzy concoctions you might hear in a symphony. They are more of a fist, railing against the heavens.
Chopin biographer James Huneker says Chopin’s Scherzos are “of his own creation;….[he] pitched on a title that is widely misleading when the content is considered. The Pole practically built up a new musical structure, boldly called it a Scherzo, and…poured into its elastic mould most disturbing and incomparable music. ”
Trouble is – Scherzo No. 4 doesn't fit even that mold – and the music isn’t all that disturbing. It’s in a major key, for starters. The mood is more lighthearted: Scherzo-like, even.
Even the master biographer concedes the point: the fourth Scherzo is “without the mood, depth, or variety of its brethren” and “is more truly a Scherzo than any of them.” But perhaps the joke, ultimately, is on the performer. Already the lengthiest of the set, pianists generally rate Chopin’s Fourth Scherzo as the lightest in mood, maybe, but the hardest to play. And that’s no laughing matter. - Jennifer Foster