The term “Nocturne” was first applied to musical pieces in the 18th century. It indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside.
However, in its more familiar form, as a short piece usually written for solo piano, the nocturne was cultivated primarily in the 19th century. The first nocturnes to be written for piano were by the Irish composer, John Field (26 July 1782–23 January 1837).
Field is generally viewed as the father of the romantic nocturne, being the person who elevated the nocturne to the status later achieved by the great romantic composers, such as Chopin. The nocturne is traditionally associated with the night – a sort of evening serenade. However, it came to be associated more with its musical form. Simply put, it is usually in the form of a pure melody on the right hand with arpeggios on left hand.
Field composed eighteen nocturnes, their mixture of reverie and charming melodic invention providing constant musical delight.
I think one of the best examples of a nocturne in its pure form is Field’s first ever nocturne, Nocturne No. 1 in E Flat Major. I decided, for better or for worse, to record it a few years back. I do hope you enjoy my rendition of it, warts n’all.
Incidentally, to give some idea of Field’s popularity in Russia – where he lived and worked for many years – he is mentioned in passing in War and Peace. There is a scene in Tolstoy’s novel where Countess Rostova calls on the Rostov household musician to play her favourite nocturne.
However, the most famous exponent of the form was Frederick Chopin who wrote 21 nocturnes. His nocturnes for piano solo are undoubtedly amongst the most glorious in the classical piano repertoire. They cover a broad spectrum of feelings and moods and are rich in musicality.
I am working on two of Chopin’s nocturnes at the moment but I haven’t recorded them yet. Maybe in a future blog when I reach my 300th birthday!
It is one of the curses of being largely self-taught that I fear I have arrived at Chopin a little too late in my life. However, the magic of audio and video recording brings with it immediate access to the genius of Chopin through the beautiful performances of world-renowned pianists.
I recently saw on YouTube a wonderful performance by a young pianist called Tiffany Poon. She is playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major, Opus 9, No.2. I found it rather beautiful and very moving. I hope you enjoy it too.
I hope this little blog and Tiffany’s gorgeous playing might entice you, even if you are not normally into classical piano music, to search out more of Chopin’s beautiful nocturnes. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!