The piano nocturne

The term “Nocturne” or “Notturno” (Italian) was first applied in the eighteenth century to pieces written for string ensemble to be performed at an evening party and then put aside. At this time, it was not necessarily a piece evocative of night-time but simply music to be played in the evening. In the early nineteenth century the name Nocturne became specifically associated with a single-movement work for solo piano and the Irish composer John Field is credited with “inventing” the Nocturne in the form we commonly understand it now: a cantabile (“singing”) melody over an arpeggiated or guitar-like bass, free in form and rather languid in character. Field composed his first Nocturne in 1812. Gentle and nostalgic, full of reverie and tenderness, the form enabled him to explore the piano’s myriad nuances and colours. He had created a pianistic form based on charm and delicacy, with elegant textures and rich sonorities.

It was Fryderyk Chopin who took the genre to new heights of structure, expression and beauty. He took Field’s template and embroidered his own unique musical personality upon it, creating piano miniatures in which the melodic lines are amplified with “fioriture” – ornaments and decorations draped across the melody like gossamer, fleeting and improvisatory in nature. In addition, the right hand’s mellifluous cantabile becomes almost elusive with the help of beautiful legato and the subtle use of the piano’s pedals. The Nocturnes remain amongst the most popular and well-loved of his entire oeuvre, and are prized by pianists everywhere as the apogee of writing for the piano.

“His music is some of the most beautiful ever written. The nature of his genius defies classification.”

Claude Debussy

“Their closer kinship of sorrow than those of Field renders them more strongly marked; their poetry is more sombre and fascinating; they ravish us more, but are less reposeful…”

Franz Liszt on Chopin’s Nocturnes

It is a mark of Chopin’s genius in this miniature form that composers continue to write piano nocturnes to this day. Notable successors include Schumann’s Nachtstϋcke (‘Night Pieces’), a quartet of disturbing character pieces in which “One sees more eyes and owls than stars” (Franz Liszt) and which reflect the dark passionate heart of Romanticism rather than its intimate lyricism. Liszt himself took up the form in his Liebestraum (‘dreams of love’). Based on poems by Ludwig Uhland and Ferdinand Freiligrath, each piece describes a different type of love: exalted, erotic and mature.

For the sensitive, romantically-inclined Gabriel Fauré, the nocturne was a form very close to his heart and his nocturnes portray a sublimated musical introspection, enchanted by the silence and solitude of night-time. His thirteen pieces in the genre vary in form and content but definitely take their cue from Chopin. Fauré’s compatriot Francis Poulenc also wrote a series of eight nocturnes which roughly span a decade (1929-1938), but unlike Chopin’s or Fauré’s, Poulenc’s nocturnes are not romantic tone-poems but characterful evocations of night-scenes and sound-images of public and private activities. No. 2, for example, depicts the charm and innocence of a girls’ dancing party, while in No. 4 night-time bells chime across the empty town.

This depiction of nocturnal activities was taken up by composers such as Bartok and Britten who both used the nocturne form to imitate of the twittering of birds and scurrying and croaking of other nocturnal creatures. Here the tranquillity and meditative quietude of Chopin’s nocturnal soundworld is exchanged for one which is rather more unsettling and suspenseful.

The American composer Samuel Barber wrote a Nocturne subtitled ‘Homage to John Field’, based on the old ideas of Field and Chopin, complete with fioriture, but written in an evolving lyrical style appropriate for its time.

Contemporary composers of the nocturne include Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), whose ‘Night Pieces’ are truly “miniature miniatures”, fleeting works of beguiling yet evocative simplicity. British composer Richard Causton’s ‘Night Piece’ for solo piano is a short encore work based on the clarinet solo from the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Premiered by the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in 2014, it harks back to Bartok and Britten in its spare scoring and thoughtful sonorities which explore the timbre and resonance of the piano rather than its melodic capabilities, and like all piano nocturnes before it, it is a brief yet expressive work.



Leon McCawley (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

British pianist Leon McCawley presented a programme of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann, all played with evident relish and enjoyment, at a charming lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall.

Read my full review here

Leon McCawley kindly participated in my ‘Meet the Artist….’ series. Read his interview here

With my Diploma behind me, it’s high time I set to work on learning new repertoire, in particular in preparation for my teacher’s spring weekend course.

The day after my diploma recital I woke with aching limbs, and a feeling of extreme tiredness akin to ‘flu, the effect of coming down after a big adrenaline/anxiety induced high (nervousness is surprisingly energy draining). I expect these symptoms are familiar to regular performers, but I was surprised by just how exhausted I felt. Instead of rising early and going straight to the piano as I normally do, I drifted through the day, listening to the radio and “pottering” in a way I hadn’t for months. I felt a little bereft without my diploma pieces to practice, but I’d vowed immediately after the exam that I would not “post mortem” the event. In the words of Doris Day “Que Sera, Sera”.

In his excellent book With Your Own Two Hands, Seymour Bernstein offers a sensible “cure” for post-performance ennui:

At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.

Two days after my exam, I went on holiday for week, but I did read some scores on my iPad, listen to music and think about the repertoire I wanted to look at on my return.

Chopin – Nocturne in E major, Opus 62 No. 2. The second of the Opus 62 and the last set of Nocturnes published in Chopin’s lifetime, charming and mature works of great expressiveness. The second of the set opens with a stately yet lyrical theme before a more restless middle section. The opening melody is then restated and the piece ends with one of the most exquisite cadences in all of Chopin’s music. Here is Pollini:

Nocturne No.18 in E, Op.62 No.2

Schubert – Impromptu in F minor, Opus 142 No. 1. I first learnt this a few years ago, and then lost interest in it. It is my second favourite of all of Schubert’s Impromptus, the A flat from the first set being my absolute favourite. I love the grand, classical, almost “Beethovenian” gestures of the opening measures, before the music gives way to a plaintive duetting figure. Schumann suggested that this Impromptu could form the opening movement of a Sonata – it certainly has the feel of a Sonata in its varied gestures and textures, yet it stands alone perfectly too. Here is Perahia:

Impromptu No. 1 in F minor. Allegro moderato

Bach, trans. Liszt – Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543. I heard this in concert recently, performed by Khatia Buniatishvili, who brought delicacy, clarity and grandeur to this work which Bach originally conceived for organ. Liszt demonstrates his deep reverence for Bach in his treatment of the material: he takes no liberties with the music, but rather simply enhances what is already there, capitalising organ sonorities, and some bravura chromatic figuration. Here is Khatia herself:

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Prelude

Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor / after BWV 543, S 462/1: Fugue