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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN: Nocturnes (Selection)
Fryderyk Chopin (1610.1849)
Fryderyk Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, in
1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin, was French by birth, but had been taken to
Poland in 1787, at the age of sixteen, working first as a clerk in a tobacco
factory, before taking part in the Polish rising against the foreign domination
of the country as an officer in the National Guard. After the failure of this
attempt, he was able to earn his living as a French tutor in various private
families, and in 1806 he married a poor relation of his then employer, Count
Chopin was to inherit from his father a fierce sense of loyalty
to Poland, a feeling that he fostered largely in self-imposed exile, since the
greater part of his career was to be spent in Paris. His early education, however,
was in Warsaw, where his father had become a teacher at a newly established
school. He was able to develop his already precocious musical abilities with
piano lessons from the eccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist from Bohemia, who
shared Nicolas Chopin’s enthusiasm for Poland and was able to inculcate in his
pupil a sound respect for the great composers of the eighteenth century. Chopin
later took lessons from the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, Jozef Elsner,
and entered the Conservatory as a student in 1828. By then he had already developed
his own individual style as a pianist and had written, during the previous ten
years, a number of pieces for the piano.
Warsaw offered a restricted environment for musical achievement,
although Chopin was able to hear Hummel there in 1828 and the violinist Paganini
in the following year. He had already acquired a considerable local reputation
when in 1830 he set out for Vienna, where he was to pass the winter with very
little to show for it. An earlier visit to Vienna had aroused interest, but
this second visit, undertaken with a more serious purpose, produced nothing,
and the following summer he set out for Paris, where he was to spend much of
the rest of his life.
Chopin’s attitude to Paris was at first ambivalent. As a provincial
he found much to shock him, while, at the same time, there was much to impress
him in the splendour of the city and in the diversity of music there. He was
to create a special place for himself as a teacher to some of the most distinguished
families and as a performer in more intimate social gatherings than the theatres
and concert-halls where his cruder contemporary Franz Liszt could excel.
By 1837 Chopin had embarked on a liaison with the writer George
Sand, born Aurore Dupin, the estranged wife of Baron Dudevant, generally spending
the summer at her country estate at Nohant. The winter of 1838 was spent with
her in Malleroa, where an attempt to battle against a high wind seriously affected
his lungs, already weakened by tuberculosis. Thereafter Chopin’s relationship
with George Sand took a more conventional course, until the jealousies and rivalry
of her two children led to a final quarrel in 1 847, George Sand and Chopin
were never to be reconciled, and he died in Paris in 1849, his health having
deteriorated considerably during the course of a visit to England and Scotland
the year before, when Paris was undergoing revolution.
As a composer Chopin’s achievement was remarkable. He perfected
his own idiomatic style of performance, in which technical problems seemed not
to exist, a style of delicate nuance and elegance. His music, suited to his
manner of playing, showed considerable originality in its exploration of harmony
and in its expansion of existing forms and creation of new ones, opening a world
that later composers were to continue to develop.
The invention of the Nocturne is generally credited to the
Irish pianist John Field, who published his first three piano Nocturnes in Leipzig
in 1814. He was to write fifteen more such pieces, exploiting the possibilities
of the newly developing pianoforte in melodies inspired by contemporary Italian
operatic practice and accompaniments that broke away from the typical Alberti
bass of an earlier generation. Field made his later career, from 1802 until
his death in 1537, in Russia, and it was probable that Chopin heard something
of his music in Warsaw. At any rate he wrote the first of his 21 Nocturnes in
1827, before he left Poland. His last Nocturne was written in 1846, three
years before his early death.
The first Nocturnes of Chopin to be published were the three
that form Opus 9. These were written in 1803 and 1831 and dedicated to the pianist
Marie Moke, who had recently deserted her fiancé Berlioz in favour of the piano-manufacturer
Camille Moke. In the year of publication, 1833, her former teacher Kalkbrenner,
one of the great virtuosi of the time, dedicated to her his Fantaisie et variations
sur une mazourka de Chopin. Opus 9 No. 1, in B Flat Minor, is operatically characteristic
in its melodic writing: the second of the set, in E Flat Major, is among the
most popular, while the third, in B Major, more expansive in form, has a relatively
cheerful mood, tinged, nevertheless, with sadness.
1833 saw the publication of a further three Nocturnes, dedicated
to Ferdinand Hiller, a pupil of Mozart’s pupil Hummel, who from 1828 spent a
period of seven years in Paris, where he had frequent contact with Chopin. The
F Major Opus 15 No. 1 has a stormy F minor central section before serenity is
restored: Opus 15 No. 2, a larghetto in F Sharp Major, is among the best known,
and Opus 15 No. 3, in G Minor, is wistful in its outer sections, with a hymn-like
passage at its heart.
Two Nocturnes, Opus 27 Nos. 1 and 2, in C Sharp and D Flat
Major respectively, were composed in 1835 and published the following year with
a dedication to the Countess Appónyi, wife of the Austrian ambassador in Pans,
her husband’s name familiar from earlier musical patronage in Vienna in the
time of Haydn and Beethoven. The tranquility of the night scene of the first
is disturbed by the passionate intensity of a middle section that moves into
the enharmonic dominant key of A flat, stilled by a return to the serenity of
the opening. The second of the set proposes two principal themes, the subject
of much dramatic embellishment.
Opus 32, published in Berlin in 1837, consists of two Nocturnes,
in B Major and A Flat Major respectively, which are dedicated to Chopin’s pupil
the Baronne do Billing, the first adventurous in its harmonic exploration and
the second equally characteristic in its mounting intensity of feeling.
The two Nocturnes of Opus 37, published in 1840, were written
in 1838 and 1839. The first of the set, in G minor, frames a chordal
central section between passages in which the operatic melodic material predominates.
The two Nocturnes of Opus 48 wore published in Paris the following year dedicated
to yet another pupil, Laure Duperré. In the first a C minor melodic opening
leads to a slower C major chordal passage that leads to music of greater passion
and an elaborated version of the material of the first C minor passage. The
second of the group, in F Sharp Minor, grows more solemn in its central section,
before the return of the principal theme.
Chopin published the two Nocturnes of 1843 in the following year, dedicating
them to his Scottish pupil Jane Wilhelmina Stirling a 40-year-old spinster of
no particular musical talent and an enthusiastic supporter of the composer.
The first of the set, in F minor, makes more demands on a performer’s musical
than technical ability. Two more Nocturnes were published in 1846. The posthumously
published Opus 72 No. 1, in E minor, was written in 1827, Chopin’s first attempt
at the form, when he had already developed something of his very particular
style of writing for the piano.
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CHOPIN: Nocturnes (Selection)