History of the Nocturne

That most Romantic of solo piano pieces, the nocturne reached its zenith with Chopin’s 21 nocturnes, but there is more music of the night, as explained here


The origins of the nocturne, that swirling music of the night that is so strongly identified with Chopin, is as cloaked in mystery as the darkest moonless night. Unlike the brilliant light of day or even the half-light of dusk, night evokes a deeper, more profound temperament, suggesting a restlessness and dreaminess. It’s no wonder that the idea of the nocturne, an artwork that attempts to capture the unstable nature of night, so appealed to composers and, later, to visual artists. Many people know that nocturne means ‘night’ and some might also know that the Irish composer John Field (1782-1837) was the first to use the name for three solo piano pieces he published in 1814.


Miceal O'Rourke plays Field's Nocturne in E minor: 




Like so many Western musical forms, the nocturne has its antecedents in music written for the Christian liturgy. Each of the many daily offices (services) of the church has its own time of day, and the nocturne was a night-time service. Over time, the notturno, to use its original Italian name, came to refer to non-liturgical musical pieces that were to be performed at night. Before John Field, the nocturne did not have the sense of depicting some aspect of the night. Exactly why Field chose the name ‘nocturne’ remains unclear. He had, in fact, thought of calling his short, poetic works ‘romances’, in imitation of the short bel canto style vocal works then in favour. Field’s 16 (or 17, depending on how you count) nocturnes share the characteristic of having a flowing accompaniment, usually a rolling left hand Alberti bass, with a singing melody above, usually played by the right hand.

John Field was born in Dublin, where he first began studying piano and where his keyboard talents were first recognised. Field had the fortune – or misfortune – to have an ambitious father. John had already performed before the Dublin public, and was 11 years old when the family moved to England, first to Bath and then to London, in 1793. Haydn, hearing Field in concert in London, wrote in his diary that the young artist ‘plays the pianoforte extremely well’. Encouraging words from a great man, but not destined to be as life changing as Field’s ten-year apprenticeship with Muzio Clementi – pianist, composer, teacher and entrepreneur with a sharp eye for the main chance.

He learned much from Clementi and was soon hailed as a formidable pianist in his own right. At 20 he toured the European capitals with his master, being treated somewhere in between a pupil and servant. Field resented his treatment by Clementi, and when the two finally arrived in Moscow, Field stayed put. He made a life there and lived a rather feckless and lavish existence. As his biographer Patrick Piggott explains, ‘He saw no point in saving money when all he had to do was to announce a concert and collect 6,000 roubles from the sale of the tickets… Why agitate oneself over anything so easily replaced as money?’


Alas, health is something that money can’t buy. Field was on a quest away from Moscow in his later years to find a cure for his ailments that Field first heard Chopin perform (and vice versa). There was no instant connection between the two. ‘No speed, no elegance,’ Chopin was said to have observed of Field’s playing, while Field dismissed Chopin as a mere composer of mazurkas. This encounter between two different generations bore fruit, however, in Chopin’s adaptation of the nocturne.



Exquisite dreaming

Chopin’s first two published sets (opp 9 and 15) date from the 1830s and comprise three nocturnes each. The subsequent sets came in pairs, with the exception of the singular E minor opus 72 no 1, (despite its late opus number, it was Chopin’s first nocturne) and two posthumously published nocturnes. Chopin began with the nocturne blueprint as set out by Field – an arpeggiated accompaniment with a free ranging, cantilena solo part – and added his own more impassioned and dreamy style. Even from the early opus 9 no 2 nocturne, one of his most famous, Chopin has gone into his own realm, with a left-hand part less Alberti bass rolling, and final cadenza-like moment. He also departs from Field in writing his nocturnes in ABA form, two gently flowing outer sections typically contrasted with a contrasting B section (the opus 15 no 1 nocturne, with its turbulent centre section, is a perfect example of this). Chopin’s nocturnes are exquisite, soul-searching, dramatic masterpieces that demand subtle legato playing style from the performer and can be unforgettable in the hands of a master such as Arthur Rubinstein.


Listen to Rubinstein: 



Another great exponent of Chopin’s piano music, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, plays Chopin's Nocturne Op 15 No 2:



The artistic freedom allowed by the nocturne, and the way the nocturne had been developed and refined by Chopin, appealed greatly to other composers, including, rather unexpectedly, Czerny, who knew Chopin (the Czerny nocturnes have been recorded recently). Liszt, who edited the collected volume of Field’s nocturnes, wrote a piece called En rêve that harkens up the twinkling night world of Chopin. Schumann, an admirer of Chopin’s nocturnes, captured Fauré wrote 13 nocturnes, which are regarded as some of his finest solo piano works. There are more recent contributions to the nocturne from Bartók, Barber and Lowell Lieberman. It seems the desire to paint a musical picture of the ambiguous world of the night is one that will endure.



Music of the night

Nocturnes and more for solo piano:


-Barber Nocturne (Homage to John Field)

-Bartók Out of Doors (fourth movement is entitled ‘The Night’s Music’)

-Chopin 21 Nocturnes (Note: Several Chopin nocturnes have appeared in Pianist’s scores)

-Czerny Nocturnes

-Debussy Clair de lune

-Debussy arr. Ravel Nocturnes, for two pianos

-Fauré 13 Nocturnes

-Field Nocturnes

-Liszt En rêve, Nocturne S207

-Schumann Nachtstücke op 23

-Scriabin Two Nocturnes op 5