Chopin Nocturnes, op. 9

performed by Idil Biret

There are three of these works, but I’m not going to address them on separate days as we did with the works that make up Beethoven’s ops 1 and 2. They’re small works, so we’ll get through them all today, as we did with the mazurkas.

First, a bit about the nocturne as a musical idea. 
Chopin didn’t invent it. John Field did, if it may be called an invention. Music in a style such as this had obviously been around for centuries, with dark or quiet passages that evoked a tranquil, pleasant or even eerie feel, and the lyricism certainly lends itself to the piano. The nocturne perhaps typifies Chopin’s lyrical, romantic, pianistic style for many people, but those people should listen to any of John Field’s sixteen nocturnes (granted, I haven’t listened to them all, but the first two are sufficient to make the point). If asked to guess who wrote these pieces, anyone not already familiar with them as Field pieces would likely guess Chopin, and they could be excused for thinking so. 
Field coined the phrase in referring to a specific “character piece” for solo piano as opposed to ensemble pieces played in the evening as part of a party, something like a serenade. Mozart wrote at least one piece with the label “notturno” (in Italian), but the notation was directing that the piece be played at night, not that it should be evocative of any such feelings. 
Field was apparently the first to use the title to refer to a single-movement standalone piano piece like those that most of us think of today, and associate with Chopin. So while Chopin didn’t invent the piece, as with the polonaise, mazurka, and more later, he popularized it. The nocturne got its big break with Chopin.
These pieces today are the first three nocturnes he wrote, and contain arguably two of the most famous examples of the form. 
The first is hands down my favorite of any of Chopin’s nocturnes. It is in B flat minor, traditionally a “dark” or mournful key, the same one his second piano sonata as well as Barber’s famous Adagio for strings is written in. The piece feels not so much mournful as definitely dark and mysterious, a bit lost, but in a very intriguing, romantic way. It is intensely lyrical and free in both rhythm and harmony. The bass line plays eighth note figures throughout he entire piece, while the melody in the right hand plays around with groups of seven, eleven, or twenty-something figures over it, giving it a very free rhythmic, lyrical quality. If I had to pick a piece that I felt embodied Chopin’s
individual lyrical style, this first nocturne would be it. That’s an oversimplification, ignoring much of his other work, but it does express some of his greatest strengths in writing for the piano.
The second nocturne is the most famous of the bunch, in fact probably of all the nocturnes, and, according to Wikipedia, perhaps the most famous thing he ever wrote. I’m not so sure. In any case, I’ve certainly heard it performed as an encore piece more than either of the other two from today. It’s nice, but by no means my favorite. It’s in a major key, so it isn’t as dark or mysterious as the first, and a sunnier quality shines through, perhaps bathed more in moonlight than sunlight. No. 2 is the shortest of the op. 9 works, and it feels more… peaceful, at ease, relaxed, without tension or mystery, just sweetly melodic, romantic (in both senses), one that tells you to slow down and breathe, enjoy life. It’s like a small massage for the soul. 
The third feels even more folksy to me. If the first was played in some enchanted forest behind a giant castle somewhere, and the second in a Venetian gondola watching the city scenery go by bathed in moonlight, then the third is played at a carnival of some kind, late in the evening, so it’s not crowded, perhaps during a weekday, few people but still lots going on, people holding hands and laughing and enjoying themselves, everyone smiling at one another. It’s the longest of the three, and to be honest, this was my least favorite of the three before I gave it another number of listens. 
Perhaps due to its length, it feels like it has the most complex structure, with individual alternating themes, and even a stormier, rather dramatic middle section that stands out among these three works. The opening carnival-like theme returns at the end and the piece ends quietly. 
There is an enormous amount of charm in these works, and that’s perhaps what makes them so endearing and enduring among audiences and performers alike. While they may not often be serious, hefty concert pieces (I haven’t seen them on many recital programs), they do show up in many encores. 
Part of their charm is not only in the sweetly lyrical, moving kind of romantic (again, in both ways) emotions these pieces conjure up as a result of Chopin’s masterful writing for the piano, but also in their brevity. Think of most other Chopin pieces with such an intense expressive quality. They don’t last long, and when they do, something new inevitably has to appear. We saw that in the Don Giovanni variations, and even pieces as short as some of the (longer) mazurkas had to bring in a bit of extra material to maintain interest. The longest of these three nocturnes, the third, was the one with a more fully-formed structure, contrasting sections that gave us a there-and-back feel that kept the piece interesting. Otherwise… there’s nothing new. Chopin plays well with and balances not only lyricism, but contrast and duration, and these three pieces for piano are perfect little succinct examples of that. Wonderful, simple, straightforward music. I love them!
Tomorrow’s piece is not opus ten. We won’t be doing that for now. Instead, in keeping with the trend we set with Mozart and Beethoven, we’ll be… well, you’ll see. It’ll be our last Chopin piece for now. See you then. 
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