Frédéric Chopin's Nocturnes, Part I, 2015

Frédéric Chopin's Nocturnes, Part I, 2015

July 13, 2015.  Chopin’s Nocturnes, part I.  With a paucity of memorable anniversaries this week, we’ll turn again to one of our incidental longer articles, this time on Chopin’s Frédéric Chopin, 1835 by Maria WodzińskaNocturnes.  Chopin wrote 21 of them; we’ll discuss ten here, and the rest in the follow-up article.  As always, when we can, we illustrate the music with performances by the young artists in our library.  Nocturne op. 9, no. 1 is performed by the young Russian pianist Anastasya Terenkova; no. 2 from the same opus – by the Mexican pianist Mariusz Carreño; and no. 3 – by Jingjing Wang (China).  The Nocturne op. 15, no. 3 is played by the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilić.  Nocturnes op. 27 are performed by the British pianist of Nigerian descent Sodi Braide (no. 1) and the Chinese pianist Ang Li (no. 2).  Opus 32, no. 2 is played by the South-Korean pianist Angela Youngmi Choi.  We had to “borrow” three performances: Maurizio Pollini plays the nocturne op. 15, no. 1, while Arthur Rubinstein performs the second piece from that opus.  The nocturne op. 32, no. 1 is by Vladimir Ashkenazy.  The 1835 watercolor portrait above is by Maria Wodzińska, who became engaged to Chopin in 1836.  The engagement was dissolved a year later on the insistence of Maria’s father because of Chopin’s poor health. 

The French word “nocturne,” and its Italian equivalent “notturno,” mean “pertaining to the night.” The term itself is quite old. Since the Middle Ages it has pertained to divisions in the canonical hours of Matins. As the name of a type of musical composition, it is also older than popularly thought. It was first applied in the 18th century to compositions of a lighter character and in several movements to be performed at night, much in the same manner as the serenade. Examples of this type of piece include works by Haydn and the Serenata Notturno, K.239 by Mozart. The nocturne as a miniature for piano, however, did not appear until the early part of the following century when the Irish composer, John Field, first used the term in this sense and pioneered an entirely new genre of compositions. Field’s nocturnes featured an expressive, song-like melody over an accompaniment of broken chords. Their construction and expression was simple, and it would take a more profound genius to reveal the full potential of Field’s creation.

As a young man, Chopin greatly admired John Field, and was strongly influenced by the Irishman’s piano and composition techniques. Others perceived Field’s influence on Chopin. Friedrich Kalkbrenner even once inquired if Chopin was a pupil of Field. Indeed, the affinity between the two was enough that Field even began to be described as “Chopin-esque” (much to his chagrin as he once described Chopin as a “sickroom talent”).

Following in Field’s footsteps, Chopin wrote his first pair of nocturnes while still in Poland, though they were not published until well after his death. His first published essays in the genre were composed in the early years of the 1830s, surrounding his departure from his native Poland, brief stay in Vienna and ultimate voyage to Paris. As one might expect, these early essays owned much to Field, though already offered glimpses of Chopin’s burgeoning genius. During his lifetime, Chopin published eighteen nocturnes, the last appearing in 1846. Three more appeared after his death: the early E minor Nocturne, alluded to above, in 1855 as op. posth. 72, and two other works in 1870 that were not assigned opus numbers.

Like his waltzes and mazurkas, Chopin’s treatment of the nocturne progressed far beyond the conventional expectations of the form. With the dances, Chopin transformed them into compelling concert miniatures; with the nocturne, he raised it to a level of artistry far beyond the Fieldian prototype and wrung from it emotions of peaceful serenity and poignant melancholy. Chopin maintained the defining elements of the genre established by Field: a vocal-like melody, often finely ornamented, allotted to the right hand, an accompaniment of broken chords in the left, and frequent use of the pedal. To this model Chopin added the influences of Italian and French operatic arias, a freedom and complexity of rhythm taken from Classical models, and a keen use of counterpoint.  (Continue reading here).

3 Nocturnes, op. 9

The first of Chopin’s published nocturnes were composed during 1830-32, and were dedicated to Madame Camille Pleyel, the famous pianist and wife of the equally famous owner of Signature Pleyel pianos. Preceded by the two earlier works composed in Poland mentioned earlier, the pieces of op. 9 display a remarkable assimilation of the genre, as established by John Field, despite still being early efforts, as well as Chopin’s rapidly maturing style. Though each remains for the most part true to the stylistic features of the nocturne, the works are already infused with Chopin’s distinctive melodic style and melancholy.

The first of the set, a Larghetto in B-flat minor (here), opens with a forlorn tune atop a gentle and steady accompaniment of broken chords. Delicate filigree is woven into Chopin’s melody, which carefully accentuates the semitones of its opening gesture. Even greater despondency sets in its final measures as Chopin dwells upon a dramatically descending motif before concluding in a Neapolitan-inflected cadence. As the key changes to the relative major in the piece’s middle section, the mood likewise turns from melancholy to nostalgia. A sotto voce D-flat major melody appears, presented in octaves and with an inherent tendency to sidestep into the key of D major. The melody is repeated without adornment until it gives way to a related idea that remains fixed on the tonic chord and echoes the closing strains of the principal theme. This theme, appearing first fortissimo and con forza fades into an eerie pianissimo as Chopin prepares for the reprise of the first theme. Now marked dolcissimo instead espressivo, the concluding reprise of the first theme is abbreviated, eliding its D-flat major middle strain. The Neapolitan cadence of before, brings about a final fortissimo on a diminished seventh harmony, which then resolves into the final, poignant B-flat major chords.

The middle piece of this triptych is an Andante in E-flat and one Chopin’s most famous and beloved pieces, frequently making appearances in pop culture (here). It is perhaps the most indebted of the op. 9 nocturnes to those of John Field, and bears a similarity to the Irish composer’s own Nocturne No. 9 in the same key. However, the piece does abandon the usual ternary form, and instead contents itself with the elaboration of a single melody. The melody unfolds gracefully in the tonic key, with its first strain repeated and embellished, before moving on to a contrasting phrase. Both strains are repeated again and further embellished with delicate ornamentation. Another variation upon the opening phrase ensues before the piece gives way to a coda. Inflected with a minor sixth borrowed from the minor mode, the coda builds into the brief cadenza that precedes the final tonic chords.

Concluding op. 9 is a stunningly beautiful Allegretto in B major (here),  that has, quite unfortunately, forever lived in the shadow of its more famous companion. Structured in a well-defined ternary form, its first section features a chromatic melody of twilit splendor over an equally chromatic harmonic accompaniment. The theme’s two sections (the latter of which is in the dominant) are each repeated and subject to Chopin’s remarkable skill in ornamentation, calling on the performer to make the greatest use of their sense of expression and subtlety. More so than in the opening piece of the set, the central episode is highly contrasted from the opening theme. Marked Agitato, the key changes to the tonic minor, and the meter to cut-time, though the compound meter feel of the nocturne is maintained with the unrelenting swirl of triplets allotted to the left hand. Over syncopated chords in the middle of the texture, the melody of the episode has decided boldness and a feeling of defiance with its dotted-rhythms. At its conclusion, Chopin returns deftly to the opening theme, almost to the exact point at which it had left off. A single statement is all that is necessary for its reprise before Chopin ventures off into a brief coda by means of a deceptive cadence. A cadenza, as in the previous nocturne, precedes the final tonic chord.

3 Nocturnes, op. 15

Chopin’s second set of nocturnes followed quickly on the heels of his first, and where dedicated to his friend and fellow pianist/composer Ferdinand Hiller. Even at only the first glance of these three pieces, one can already discern that they are different works indeed than those of op. 9. Chopin abandons his earlier salon style for a much more personal expression, and as a result op. 15 can be truly described as “Chopinesque.” Furthermore, we behold the composer already departing from the stylistic expectations of the Fieldian nocturne.

The opening piece is a tranquil F major Andante cantabile (here). The song-like theme of the opening glides peacefully above a steady pulse of triplets in the left hand. Its latter half briefly indulges in tonal exploration. The accompanying harmonies touch on the key A-flat major while the melody remains inextricably fixed to the tones of the tonic key. Through a brilliant chromatic turn, Chopin then resolves this tension into the key of C major. Following this phrase, the melody begins anew as if to repeat its opening section, but dies away on the changing note figure of its second measure. After a silent pause, Chopin then plunges into a stormy Con fuoco episode in the tonic minor. Measured tremolandi take the place of the gentle pulsating triplets, while a dramatic tune, developed from the aforementioned changing note motif, grows out of rushing sextuplets. Without break, the episode fades back into the tranquil opening, where Chopin presents a very modestly embellished form of the F major melody. Curiously, he omits any expected coda, but instead allows the theme to continue to fade over its second measure into the two final chords.

The following Larghetto in F-sharp major (hear) is the most well-known of the set, yet does not quite attain to the popularity of the E-flat major Nocturne of op. 9. Technically more demanding than that earlier piece, the fourth Nocturne opens with a captivating theme above an accompaniment of broken chords in duple rhythm, abandoning the compound meter so often found in the nocturne. Contrasting the opening theme is a Doppio movimento episode of ethereal beauty. It begins fixated over a dominant pedal with a sotto voce melody atop a glistening accompaniment of quintuplets. After its first strain, the pedal tone moves up a half step as the melody continues to grow in fervor. As soon as it reaches its climax, the music begins to subside, leaning towards the key of F-sharp minor. Greatly embellished, the opening theme then returns with even greater effect to close the piece.

Rounding off the set is a Lento in G minor (here). It was, at least in part, inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet, of which Chopin had attended a performance. On the manuscript he wrote, "After a performance of Hamlet." However, against the prevailing headwinds of the burgeoning Romantic period, Chopin was a firm adherent to the principles of absolute music and later crossed out his revealing source of inspiration, replacing it with, "No! Let them work it out for themselves." A sense of tragedy certainly pervades the first half of the work. This mood is eloquently captured in the initial falling fifth of the melody and frequent downward skips of the accompanying chords, and further amplified by Chopin's complete eschewing of all virtuosity. Even more poignant is the initial subtle chromaticism--the interchangeable diminished seventh harmony appearing in both the tonic key and in its relative major, and the tolling D minor chords that morph into a dominant seventh via a lowering of its fifth (A to G-sharp), resulting in an aching tritone movement. Chopin's chromaticism, however, soon takes a prominent role in this nocturne. Diminished seventh harmony facilitates an effortless modulation into E minor, which also further initiates a remarkable eight-bar passage in which the music arrives in the remote key of F-sharp major. It is in this key, shaded with tones borrowed from its parallel minor, that the first half of the piece works itself into a poignant climax. From its close, Chopin transitions into the piece's latter half with ominous C-sharps sounded in the piano's low register like heavy bell tollings. By a simple chromatic alteration, the key of F major is obtained and a religioso theme accompanied with solemn block chords instills a sense of hope. Ultimately, however, it gives way to a passage of punctuated chords that concludes the piece.

2 Nocturnes, op. 27

Even further removed from the Fieldian form Chopin had inherited are the two nocturnes of 1836, a contrasting minor/major pair of remarkable expressive depth. These two masterfully crafted works were published the following year and were dedicated to Mme. la Comtesse d'Appony. 

A C-sharp minor Larghetto in Chopin's signature melancholic style leads the opus 27 diptych (here). The hollow sounds of perfect intervals open the piece as the left hand confines itself to the tonic and dominant. In the third measure, the principal theme enters sotto voce and climbs laboriously from the third scale degree, though its chromatically altered counterpart, to the subdominant, a figure that becomes a key feature of the opening section. Further adding to the doleful air is Chopin's frequent lowering of the second scale degree, resulting in inverted augmented sixth harmonies. Regardless of the few crescendos that appear, the entire section passes eerily by. The melody ultimately trails off with a chromatic descent concluding on the leading tone, as the left hand carries dolefully on with its hollow sounding fourths and fifths. The central episode then adopts a quicker tempo (Piu mosso), and unleashes a torrent of energy worthy of Beethoven. Dotted rhythms sound on the dominant and tonic, reminiscent of orchestral trumpets. Encompassed within these octaves is a vigorous theme underpinned by a steady rising bass and thunderous semitone triplets. Reaching a brief appassionato section in E major, the music reaches a powerful A-flat major, only to drop to another sotto voce where it begins a lengthy crescendo and accelerando. With such energy, the music finally releases into a wild con anima theme in D-flat major. Chopin boldly sidesteps into C major on the theme's repetition, only to deftly reestablish the tonic key a few measures later. A cadenza, in octaves and marked con forza, then brings about an abridged reprise of the opening music. From the principal theme's languorous ending, Chopin begins a coda in the major mode, consoling filled with beautiful suspensions. The last few measures are marked Adagio and conclude the piece in C-sharp major.

Its companion, a Lento sostenuto in D-flat major (here), is of an entirely different character and eloquently balances the brooding demeanor of the C-sharp minor Larghetto. The opening melody, which unfolds at first over a static tonic chord is one of the most memorable Chopin ever wrote. Its first harmonic change impresses the minor mode upon the listener (enharmonically spelt as an augmented second scale degree), which keeps its presence felt in the accompaniment of broken chords. Following a close in the tonic key, the music then slips into the key of the relative minor with an enthralling espressivo tune with delicate ornamentation. The remainder of the piece then concerns itself with these two contrasting strains of continuous melody, and are further embellished and developed with consummate skill on each reappearance. The climatic point is approached from the key of E-flat minor with a con forza descending scale leading into an appassionato phrase, and culminating in a rapturously embellished 4-3 suspension over the dominant of the tonic key. After the resolution of this cadence, the remaining music functions as the piece's dénouement. Dolcissimo tritones descend over chromatic harmonies underpinned by a tonic pedal, and lead into subtle passage of counterpoint filled with graceful turns that bring this heavenly nocturne to a close. 

2 Nocturnes, op. 32

After the depths and heights traversed by the previous pair of nocturnes, the two of op. 32 are far more modest and unassuming in character. They were composed in 1837 and published that same year. The first, an Andante sostenuto in B major (here), opens with a simple tune over an equally unadorned accompaniment of broken chords. The theme’s principal feature is its latter half, which crescendos towards a forte, only to suddenly pause before its final cadence in a silent moment of rumination, and then resume again piano and delicatissimo. This theme is presented only twice, and on its restatement Chopin, after the previous D-flat major nocturne, shows remarkable restraint in ornamenting his melody. A new idea then appears, occasionally suggesting the addition of another voice with subtle touches of polyphony, and a penchant for gliding towards minor tonalities. It, too, is twice stated, and each concludes with the characteristic pause and cadence of the first theme, yet denied its final resolution by the intervention of borrowed dominant seventh harmonies. Following the restatement of the second theme, one would expect the inevitable reprise of the opening music. However, Chopin breaks off into a mysterious, recitative-like coda that wrenches the music from its glowing B major into the more dimly lit minor mode, and it is perhaps here that the listerner regains a glimpse of the dramatics of op. 29. Grimly, the piece concludes in B minor with a terse plagal cadence.

The second piece is a Lento in A-flat major (here). Like its companion, there is a simplicity in expression with little filigree added to embellish its song-like tune. A two-measure, chorale-like plagal cadence serves as introduction to its principal melody, a graceful tune predominantly in common time barely disturbed by the undercurrent of triplets. The piece’s central episode moves to the key of the relative minor, and the triplet rhythm of the accompaniment becomes its central feature. The chords of the left hand adopt a more agitated pattern than the serene broken chords of the prior section, while the melody moves nimbly about in the treble. The latter half of the episode modulates into the more distant key of F-sharp minor, further perturbing the placid scene established by the opening music. When the principal theme is reprised, rounding out the piece’s ternary design, it returns fortissimo and specially marked appassionato, indicating that it has been sorely affected by the preceding turbulence. Yet, it eventually regains its former grace as it nears its close. A brief coda delicately embellishes its closing phrase, but stops short of reaching a final cadence. Following a short pause, the opening chorale returns to quietly conclude the piece.