“Nocturnes” by Frédéric Chopin is a collection of 21 pieces crafted for solo piano between the period spanning 1827 to 1846. It is considered as one of the best solo works for piano in the history of concert repertoire, cementing its place among the finest.
Nocturnes “No. 1” to “No. 18” was published in batches of twos/threes during Chopin’s lifetime, albeit, following the order of composition. However, he had actually started off with “No. 19” and “No. 20,” before he departed Poland. They were eventually published Posthumously. The last one, “No. 21,” wasn’t even titled as “Nocturne.” However, since it was published using the same title, it is included with recordings and publications of the collection. Frédéric Chopin didn’t invent the nocturne, but he played an important role in expanding and popularizing it. He built on the legacy developed by John Field, the Irish composer who created the form.
Chopin was born in 1810, when John Field was already an established music composer. A young Chopin quickly became an ardent follower. He was specifically influenced by the Irishman’s playing and composing technique, which became more evident as he started crafting the Nocturnes. Before Chopin first met Field, he had already composed five of them.
Chopin was compared to Field in his youth, while the latter was often termed “Chopinesque.” Contemporary composers like Friedrich Kalkbrenner even inquired whether Field was Chopin’s music teacher. Chopin personally respected Field, considering him as a primary influence in his musical journey. Field, however, didn’t quite like him. He termed Chopin a “sickroom talent” after meeting and listening to his compositions.
Chopin’s masterpiece evokes multiple similarities when compared to Field’s, but retains their own unique, distinct melody. One stark similarity is the utilization of a melody resembling a song in the right hand. It is a crucial characteristic of the nocturne. Chopin’s usage of the melody similar to vocals created a palpable emotional depth, enticing the listener. Another noticeable characteristic is the usage of “necessity,” a nocturne where the left hand is used to play broken chords which act as the melody’s rhythm. Like Field, Chopin also aggressively used the pedal. The extensive usage of pedal enabled him to garner sustained notes, resulting in more emotional expressions - it’s own prominent aura.
Majority of the Nocturnes, when assessed through their form, can be compared to an “Aria” with ornamental reprise (tripartite reprise form). The outer sections of these pieces are tuneful and lyrical, dwelling on a typical mood. The middle sections offer a violent contrast, an animated and dramatic “action.” The clash between such agitation and tunefulness is evident in most pieces, although some Nocturnes do offer a vague cantabile.
Chopin’s nocturnes are generally set in “A-B-A” (ternary form), although keys and meters may vary. They offer a distinct, melancholic melody that floats over broken chords and arpeggios played using the left hand. The main theme is repeated throughout the nocturnes, adding elaborate embellishments, especially Nocturnes “No. 7” and “No. 8” onwards. Although Chopin published them as contrasting pairs, each of them has enough musical ornaments to be considered as complete works. Some Nocturnes do not feature the ternary form, noticeably “No. 2” and “No. 16,” as neither has contrasting sections. Nocturnes “No. 6” and “No. 12” also fall under this category, as they are crafted in binary form utilizing the “A–B–A–B–A” form.
The tempo marking off all the Nocturnes, except “No. 3” comprises a variation of Andante (Larghetto) and Lento. Also, all of the pieces, except 3, end with a “major key.” These even include all nocturnes in “minor keys.” All such nocturnes (minor keys) end with “Picardy Thirds,” except “No. 21” and “No. 13” - both of which are in “C Minor.” Nocturne “No. 9” is in “B Major” and is the only piece in a major key that ends on “B Minor,” - a minor key.
The Nocturne in “C Minor” is often considered the most famous among the collection, and stands apart with its dramatic reprise, incorporating a special balladic tone. The Nocturne in “E-flat Major” is also highly popular, and is deemed as the crème de la crème of his ornamented cantabiles. The ornamentation of the Nocturnes evolves gradually, becoming integral to the melody with each successive opus.
Chopin’s greatest innovation was the usage of a free-flowing rhythm in his Nocturnes, a technique that pays ode to classical music. The structures are inspired by French and Italian Arias, while his usage of counterpoints to create tensions only displays his brilliance.
Various composers, both contemporary and later have been influenced by Chopin’s Nocturnes. Notable names include Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, who displayed similar melodic style and technique. Other eminent composers like Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt have also lavishly praised his genius. The most notable recordings of this collection include the work of Maria João Pires, a Swiss-Portuguese classical pianist and Spanish pianist Claudio Arrau’s arrangement.
These solo piano compositions made a lasting and noticeable impact in the Romantic era. Gabriel Fauré, another noted composer who crafted Nocturnes (13) hugely admired Chopin and was influenced by his works. Other names in this list would include Lowell Liebermann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Francis Poulenc, Alexander Scriabin, and Georges Bizet. When published, Chopin's Nocturnes faced mixed critical reactions. However, with time, most of his initial critics retracted their statements, applauding his efforts.
Two Sides of a Coin
Frédéric Chopin’s music has been overly romanticized, often encompassing his classical heart. This is a composer who detested sentimentality, artifice, and affectation. Or did he? His Nocturnes offer a similar contrast. Here is a composer who worshipped Mozart and Bach, but garnered little influence from his contemporaries like Schumann, Liszt, and Berlioz.
His Nocturnes evoke a refined simplicity, fluent and delicate, just like Mozart. His usage of counterpoints reminds of Bach - and a solid foundation of classical musical education. His collection is a musical masterpiece - of emotional intensification, melodic descent, and poetic expressions. They can also be considered as the embodiment of musical romanticism - offering shades of a consumptive sentimentalist.
That’s exactly how history remembers Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the man himself. A picture of a touch of melancholy, gloomy introspection on one side, while a musical revolutionary, a symbol of compositional brilliance, a master of the keyboard brimming with confidence on the other.
The best thing about Chopin’s Nocturnes is that it doesn’t only belong to keyboard stalwarts. If you love music, if you have any affection towards the keyboard, Chopin is also yours. Even if you don’t, he is the best reason to begin.