Born Zelazowa Wola, Poland, March 1, 1810; died Paris, October 17, 1849
Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1
Nocturne in F major, Op. 15, No. 1
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1
Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2
Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1
Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth.
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
Composed in 1830–1843; c. 33 minutes
One can hardly read the words “Chopin Nocturnes” without an accompanying reference to the Irish composer John Field (1782–1837). Between 1814–1835 Field wrote 18 Nocturnes for piano that Chopin admired. However, several other factors paved Chopin’s path toward his own piano Nocturnes.
Chopin was privately (and sometimes, not so privately) critical of most other composers, including even Beethoven, as well as of those contemporaries with whom he had a nominal friendship, such as Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Bach and Mozart were his models. Chopin was a brilliant pianist, but he abhorred performing for the public, and he retired early from his fledgling concert career. In an era when audiences favored grand symphonic expressions, virtuoso performers and large opera productions, Chopin’s taste ran rather to the music miniature—not wimpy, not vapid, but refined in scale: Bellini, not Berlioz. Just when piano manufacturers were creating instruments capable of expressing wide-ranging, large sounds, Chopin preferred the French Pleyel piano, which was characterized by its subtle sonic textures and light action.
Chopin’s affinity for the counterpoint of Bach’s keyboard works, the clarity of Mozart’s sonata structures and the mellifluous lyricism of Bellini’s opera arias led him to create startling new miniatures suited to his Pleyel piano. Beginning in 1830, and continuing for the next 15 years, Chopin created 21 Nocturnes that gave new insights into the night and its music.
In 1859 an edition of Field’s Nocturnes appeared in print, with an introduction written by its editor, the pianist Franz Liszt. In it, Liszt drew a comparison between the Nocturnes of the two composers:
“Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they oft give rise. His flight is loftier, though his wing be more wounded; and his very suaveness grows heartrending, so thinly does it veil his despairing anguish.…Their closer kinship to sorrow than those of Field renders them the more strongly marked; their poetry is more sombre and fascinating; they ravish us more, and are less reposeful ….”
Liszt’s poetic description bears the weight of technical analysis: Field wrote all but three of his 18 in major mode; Chopin wrote ten of his 21 in minor. Field’s Nocturnes tend to follow a simple construction on an ABA, or ABAB pattern; Chopin’s are more varied and complex in style and shape. (When he does use an ABA construction, as in Op. 27, No. 1, Chopin imbues it with high drama.) Field’s melodies are usually accompanied by a simple, flowing left-hand pattern of arpeggiation; Chopin not only set his complicated melodies over more extensive left-hand figurations (as in Op. 27, No. 2), but also integrated the two hands with sophisticated contrapuntal activity.
The Nocturnes of this evening’s program reveal the range of Chopin’s imagination and the depths of his exploration. They range from the simple lyricism of the well-known Op. 9, No. 2, to the grandeur of Op. 48, No. 1. In Op. 15, the fire in the Trio of No. 1 follows the passionate fioritura of No. 2. Within the night of these works, Chopin has created angst alongside its beauty, disquiet amidst its repose and the threat of storms before morning.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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