When Fryderyk Chopin began composing nocturnes, the title ‘Nocturne’ would have mainly evoked for listeners a kind of vocal piece, similar to the romance, but written for more than one voice. Vocal nocturnes, a sociable form of music-making, enjoyed great success across the amateur European market from the 1790s well into the middle of the nineteenth century. John Field’s first nocturnes for solo piano, from the early 1810s, imitated this popular vocal genre. Essentially songs without words, Field’s nocturnes projected a single, lyrical mood over an undulating left-hand accompaniment.
Chopin’s early nocturnes comfortably evoke both the vocal past of the genre and the straightforward formal models of Field.
In the Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72 No. 1 (Chopin’s earliest, probably written in Warsaw in 1827), the debt to Field emerges most clearly in the consistent mood of the undulating accompaniment. The lyrical cast of the melody occasionally sounds in parallel thirds, a favourite texture in the vocal nocturne.Chopin’s last set of published nocturnes, Op. 62 (completed in 1846), shows how the contrasting middle sections permit a real sense of drama to unfold over a relatively short span of time. In the first of the two, the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1, the persistent unsteadiness of the syncopated accompaniment seems to hold the forward momentum of the piece in suspense: when the opening theme of the Nocturne then returns, truncated, but garbed in luxurious trills and lavish melodic flourishes, the moment feels less like a simple reprise and more like a theatrical denouement. The faintly exotic aura of the middle section finds more explicit expression in the wonderfully strange chromatic meanderings of the coda. The outer sections of the Nocturne in E major, Op. 62 No. 2 contain a beautiful and stately theme, which Chopin shortens in the reprise to allow time for a brief, climactic cadenza. The emotional peak of this cadenza seems a response to the agitated middle section of the piece. So restless is it that one scarcely notices the passages of exact canonic imitation that it contains (the play of contrapuntal lines perhaps a distant echo of the interplay of voices in the vocal nocturne). Counterpoint, a generally significant aspect of Chopin’s later style, also animates the Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2 (1844). Here Chopin returns to the key and Fieldian style of his own most popular early nocturne (Op. 9 No. 2), only now the sinuous workings of the contrapuntal voices and the mighty climax reached halfway through the work show that even when Chopin wrote in emulation of Field his individual style still triumphed.
© 2010 Jeffrey Kallberg