The nocturne represents one of he great genres of Romantic art. Chopin inherited the species from John Field and proceeded to obliterate Field’s charming naivete with his own highly chromatic and sultry genius. It is said that Field, upon hearing Chopin’s first three nocturnes, exclaimed, “Chopin’s talent is of the sick-room.” The last critic to prefer Field seems to have been the German anti-Chopinist Ludwig Rellstab: “Where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of pepper. . . . If one holds Field’s charming nocturnes before a distorting, concave mirror, one gets Chopin’s work.”
The Chopin night pieces bewitched countless nineteenth-century composers, and soon this category of music became so stereotyped as to cause Moscheles to exclaim, “What antidotes have we here for all these morbid moanings and over-wrought effects! . . . A composer brought me a nocturne of so restless a description that it threatened to disturb my nocturnal rest.” Although Chopin had an instant success with many of them, the Nocturnes are generally the worst-played pieces of his output. Yet they remain critical works for the pianist in the development of a fine cantilena, the shaping of phrases, and tonal balance. Louis Kentner thinks that if pianists neglect the Nocturnes, they “are guilty of peevish discrimination, for if these pieces are ‘too sweet,’ or not very ‘relevant’ to our cheerless age, they are still expressive of another, happier age, and therefore entitled to bring pleasure to us poor deprived humans.”
The lure of the Nocturnes does remain powerfully potent; few poet-pianists have failed to lavish their best efforts on them. Chopin, in these atmospheric works, let flow the full power of his voluptuous melodic gift, in piano writing that remains remarkable to this day. They are love poems of the finest ardor, and within each one an intimate human drama is explored. Henry T. Finck declares, “Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Weber in Oberon have given us glimpses of dreamland, but Chopin s nocturnes take us there bodily, and plunge us into reveries more delicious than the visions of an opium eater.” Daniel Gregory Mason writes, “Chopin is one of the supreme masters in the coloristic use of the dissonance. His nocturnes may fairly be said to inaugurate by this means a new era in music, comparable in many respects to the era of impressionism in painting.”
Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No.1:
Composed when Chopin was twenty-two years old. A work of sumptuous phraseology, already it offers an elongation of the Field nocturne in the long-limbed opening theme. Charles Willeby wrote, “What could be more triste than the phrase in D-flat . . . marked legatissimo.” The middle section is quite long and, in Huneker’s words, “of exceeding charm. As a melody it has all the lurking voluptuousness and mystic crooning of its composer. . . . There is passion peeping out in the coda.” For Jean Kleczynski, this nocturne “exhibits a thrilling sadness, together with a novel eloquence of construction.” In the middle section he feels “as though the soul were sinking beneath the weight of thought and the heat of a summer’s night.” The B-flat minor Nocturne is a work of significance and is seldom played.
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No.2:
The most famous of the nocturnes, indeed, it ranks high in celebrity among all of Chopin’s works. It has been played rotten with sentimentality and now deserves a respite. One can still feel the suave, glamorous atmosphere of the fashionable Parisian salon which pervades this work.
Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No.3:
Chopin’s love for great singing must ever be in the interpreter’s mind when performing the nocturnes. The B major Nocturne is luscious, with ornamental vocalization on the piano. The ghostlike theme is deeply penetrating, while the middle section is turbulent and convulsive. This nocturne is a masterful early work and is rather unknown. The Op. 9 set was fittingly dedicated to the bewitching pianist Mme. Camille Pleyel, nee Moke. All who heard her play fell in love, among them Berlioz, Ferdinand Hiller, and Liszt.
Nocturne in F major, Op. 15, No. 1:
The three nocturnes of this opus were dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller. The F major Nocturne is played less often than the Op. 15, No.2; however, it is a gem, with its serene and tender Andante theme, followed by a trio marked Con fuoco, magnificently planned in double notes.H. Barbedette, a writer who often heard Chopin perform, perceives “a calm and beautiful lake, ruffled by a sudden storm and becoming calm again.” Finck rightfully complains that “few know how to use the pedal in such a way as to produce the rich uninterrupted flow of tone on which the melody should float.”
Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No.2:
One of the popular nocturnes; it is of a ravishing beauty, exhibiting a heavenly melody. Niecks says “the floritura flit about us lightly as gossamer threads.” The middle section, Doppio movimento, shows Chopin’s command of pianistic notation. No composer had thus far been so explicit and original in showing to the pianist, on the page, what was needed. The increased motion of the middle section, with its novel figuration in quintuplets, possesses a burning passion.
Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No.3:
The first theme is marked “languido e rubato,” with the second section marked “religioso.” The G minor work is a slow-moving, feverish piece, of less value than the two preceding nocturnes; Huneker tells of a performance by Anton Rubinstein where “in the fourth bar, and for three bars, there is a held note, F, and I heard the Russian virtuoso, by some miraculous means, keep this tone prolonged. Under Rubinstein’s fingers it swelled and diminished, and went soaring into D, as if the instrument were an organ.
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No.1:
The critic Alan Rich considers this nocturne”one of the most personal utterances in the entire realm of piano music. Finck feels that “it embodies a greater variety of emotion and more genuine dramatic spirit on four pages than many popular operas on four hundred.” The work is tragic, menacing, at times hopeless. The form is A B A and coda. The central section marked Piu mosso has a restless, vehement power. The coda once again reminds the listener of Chopin’s seemingly inexhaustible prodigality.
Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No.2:
This exquisite piece, in one continuous mood, is the essence of fioritura. It is a favorite nocturne but demands a highly developed technical skill. Professor Niecks was fearful of the power of this luscious work: “Nothing can equal the finish and delicacy of execution, the flow of gentle feeling lightly rippled by melancholy, and spreading out here and there in smooth expansiveness. But all this sweetness enervates, there is poison in it. We should not drink in these thirds, sixths, etcetera, without taking an antidote of Bach or Beethoven.” Lennox Berkeley writes, “A close study of this piece reveals the individuality of Chopin’s piano writing; the proliferation of the arabesques that embellish the theme are of a kind that is his own invention, bearing little resemblance to the work of any other composer.” The melody is violinistic, yet to transcribe the piece is to destroy its very essence. It can only be sung upon the piano.
Nocturne in B major, Op. 32, No.1:
A nocturne of less importance, though characteristic in design and melodic contour. However, a surprising coda of amazing originality completely shocks the listener out of reverie. Berkeley calls it an ending that “defies analysis, but compels acceptance.” To Huneker, this little recitativo “is like the drum-beat of tragedy.”
Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, No.2:
A long, gracious melody with a balletic middle section. Indeed, the work is important in the ballet Les Sylphides, choreographed to Chopin’s music. The A-flat Nocturne, though attractive, is less important than other members of this species.
Nocturne in G major, Op. 37, No.2:
Once far more popular than at present. Its main theme in euphonious thirds and sixths gives it a barcarolle, Venetian flavor. The Victorian Niecks finds “a beautiful sensuousness; it is luscious, soft, rounded, and not without a certain degree of languor. But let us not tarry too long in the treacherous atmosphere of this Capua-it bewitches and unmans.” The view of Chopin’s music as a dangerous aphrodisiac was once prevalent. Kentner warns us that the nocturnes should not “suffer critical degradation because sentimental young ladies used them, in days long gone by, to comfort their repressed libido.”
Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No.1:
In grandeur of conception, the C minor Nocturne is unrivaled among its companions. The work, composed in 1841, finds Chopin’s genius blooming, reaching new vistas of emotional power. The Doppio movimento section has an almost Beethovenian ethical ring. For Kullak, “the design and poetic contents of this nocturne make it the most important one that Chopin created; the chief subject is a masterly expression of a great powerful grief.”
Nocturne in F-sharp minor, Op. 48, No.2:
A subtle and recondite nocturne. It is interpretively difficult, with a discursive middle section in D-flat which is a kind of recitative. The main theme is chaste and transparent, and of an unusual length, with a veiled passion throughout.
Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No.1:
Teachers often prescribe this nocturne for students grappling with Chopin’s style. It is technically easier than many, though it lacks the melodic distinction of its companion nocturnes. Huneker calls it “a nice nocturne, neat in its sorrow.”
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 55, No.2:
A work of striking beauty and exquisite intricacy. Berkeley notes, “Here no analysis can explain the natural growth of the melodic line.” In the last twenty years, the E-flat Nocturne has become recognized by pianists as a spiritualization of the form. One has only to compare the Field-like E-flat Nocturne of Op. 9, No.2, to understand how far Chopin had traveled in pianistic layout and harmonic plenitude based on a personal contrapuntal approach, and a rarefication of melody. The coda is again a passage of breathtaking inspiration.
Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No.1:
A work of pure luxuriance; the main theme is profusely adorned with difficult chain trills. In his book on Chopin, Camille Bourniquel writes, “The last Nocturnes complete the redemption of the genre and its final liberations-they possess a unique freedom.” Gerald Abraham feels they “illustrate the principle of motive-generated melody in continuous cantabile form.”
Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No.2:
The eighteenth nocturne and the last one published during Chopin’s life; a luminous and melting composition. It foreshadows Faure’s work in the nocturne genre. Ernest Hutcheson wrote, “This is one of Chopin’s sostenuto melodies, warm and luscious like the G string of a violin.” The middle section is agitated.
Nocturne No.19 in E minor, Op. 72, and Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth.: The E minor Nocturne is the earliest piece by Chopin in nocturne form, composed when he was seventeen, and it is still played often. The popular C-sharp minor is a pastiche of his nocturne style, with passages from his F minor Concerto. Friskin describes it as “a poverty-stricken nocturne.” It is now published in most Nocturne editions, although Chopin did not title the piece.
- ARRAU: Philips (CD)
- ASHKENAZY: London (CD)
- BARENBOIM: DG (CD)
- FOU TS’ONG: Sony Classical (CD)
- KATIN: Unicorn
- LIMA: Arabesque
- MORAVEC: Elektra/Nonesuch (CD)
- NOVAES: Vox
- OHLSSON: Angel
- RUBINSTEIN: RCA (CD)
- WEISSENBERG: Angel
- BUSONI (Op. 15, No.2): Pearl (CD)
- FLIER (Op. 62, No.2): Westminster
- FRIEDMAN (Op. 55, No.2): Pearl (CD)
- HOFMANN (Op. 15, No.2): RCA; IPA
- LOESSER (Op. 9, No.3): IPA
- DE PACHMANN (Op. 37, No.2): Pearl (CD)
- POGORELICH (Op. 55, No.2): DG (CD)
- RACHMANINOFF (Op. 9, No.2, & Op. 15,No.2): RCA (CD)
- P. SERKIN (Op. 48, No.2): RCA
- SOLOMON (Op. 9, No.2): EMI