Frédéric Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor, Op. 35, popularly known as the Funeral March, was completed in 1839 at Nohant, near Châteauroux in France. However, the third movement, whence comes the sonata's common nickname, had been composed as early as 1837.
The sonata comprises four movements:
- Grave – Doppio movimento (B♭ minor – B♭ major)
- Scherzo (E♭ minor with a trio and ending both in G♭ major)
- Marche funèbre: Lento (B♭ minor with a trio in D♭ major))
- Finale: Presto (B♭ minor)
I. Grave – Doppio movimento
The first movement is in a modified sonata form and was in 2/2 time. It opens with a short introduction, followed by a stormy opening theme and a gently lyrical second theme in D♭ major. After the development, the lyrical second theme returns – but this time in B♭ major (in which the movement ends). Unlike most sonata forms, this movement does not bring back the main theme after the development.
The second movement is a virtuoso scherzo in E♭ minor with a more relaxed melodic or a waltz-like central section in G♭ major, which is the key of the end of this movement.
III. Marche funèbre: Lento
The third movement begins and ends with the celebrated funeral march in B♭ minor which gives the sonata its nickname, but has a calm Lento interlude in D♭ major. While the term "funeral march" is a fitting description of the third movement, complete with the interlude, the expression "Chopin's Funeral March" is used commonly to describe only the funeral march proper, that is, only the outer sections in B♭ minor.
Henry Wood made two orchestrations of the Funeral March. One was played at The Proms on four occasions between 1895 and 1904. On the First Night of the 1907 Proms, 17 August 1907, Wood conducted a new version he had written on learning of the death two days earlier of the renowned violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1933, Sir Edward Elgar transposed it into D minor and transcribed it for full orchestra; its first performance was at his own memorial concert the next year. It was also transcribed for large orchestra by the conductor Leopold Stokowski; this version was recorded for the first time by Matthias Bamert.
The funeral march was played at the graveside during Chopin's own burial at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It was also used at the state funerals of John F. Kennedy, Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and those of Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev.
IV. Finale: Presto
The finale contains a whirlwind of unremitting parallel octaves, with unvarying tempo and dynamics (like the 14th prelude in E♭ minor) and not a single rest or chord until the final bars with a sudden fortissimo B♭ octave and a B♭ minor chord ending the whole piece. James Huneker, in his introduction to the American version of Mikuli edition of the Sonatas, quotes Chopin as saying, "The left hand unisono with the right hand are gossiping after the March." Anton Rubinstein is said to have remarked that the fourth movement is the "wind howling around the gravestones". The Sonata confused contemporary critics, who found it lacked cohesion. Robert Schumann suggested that Chopin had in this sonata "simply bound together four of his most unruly children." (See Schirmer's modern reprint of the Mikuli edition.)
The sonata's opening bars allude to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, Beethoven's last. The basic sequence of scherzo, funeral march with trio, and animated, resolving finale, repeats that of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 12 in A♭ major; however, Chopin's first movement is written in sonata form while Beethoven's first movement is a set of variations on an original theme.
The march is sampled in a number of jazz compositions, including Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" and Cab Calloway's "Man from Harlem".
The second movement of Erik Satie's Embryons desséchés, entitled "of an Edriophthalma", uses a variation on the Funeral March's second theme. Satie labels it, "Citation de la célèbre mazurka de SCHUBERT" ("quotation from the celebrated mazurka of Schubert"), but no such piece exists.