Of Dreamlands, Romance, and Fevered Visions

Chopin: Nocturnes No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1; No. 8 in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2; Nocturne No. 9 in B, Op. 32, No. 1.

The term ‘notturno’ was in common parlance in music circles of the 18th century, but it was only with John Field’s piano works that the term ‘nocturne’ came into regular use. Maurice Brown and Kenneth Hamilton note that Field’s use of the form was aligned to an exploration of the developments in instrument design, particularly in the use of the sustaining pedal, and they note that “The melodies of his nocturnes transferred to the keyboard the cantilena of Italian opera, to which he had been exposed in Russia in the early 1800s.”

This link to a vocal tradition is central to the nocturne, with particular relevance to Chopin’s use of the genre. More precisely, we can note the manner in which the composer chose to depart from expectations of music presumed by some to be simply depictions of a sleepy placidness of the night-time. Artur Bielecki notes that while indeed these ‘piano bel canto’ works have, “romantic images of the night, the moon, and all the shades of lyrical and dramatic expression associated with them”, he also notes that the middle sections of Chopin’s nocturnes provide “violent contrast, a dramatism and animated ‘action’.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in Nocturne No. 9 in B, Op. 32 No. 1. James Parakilas notes that the very use of generic title of the ‘nocturne’ is a red herring, masking Chopin’s inclusion of ‘programmatic intent’:

The illusion that this is simply a nocturne – simply, that is, a piano imitation of a salon song, or more properly a salon duet – is consequently maintained until the point at which the “singing,” without so much as a return to its opening melody, comes to its appointed conclusion. The disruption is all the more shocking for that, and critical commentary on the work has issued principally from the perception that nothing before the disruption prepares the listener for it.

Brown and Hamilton note that it is approaches like this that move the nocturnal implications of serenity instead into “an attempt to capture the fevered visions and dreams of the night or to evoke its natural sound world in musical terms that may be very far from those of the drawing-room.” Few works in any genre match the power that Chopin places not simply in the sounds, but in the silences where one may rightly feel that time stands still.

In contrast to – or perhaps as fitting preludes towards – this definitive spark of dark ingenuity, are the Nocturnes No. 1 in B flat minor and No. 8 in D flat.  Despair at the evaporation of chances of marriage for Chopin provided the background to the disruptions of No. 9, Nocturne No. 8 provides an entirely different angle, with Mieczysław Tomaszewski noting that this provides the epitome of the ‘romance variety’ of the genre. And as the composer’s first exploration of the nocturne, it is perhaps no surprise that No. 1 captures the gentle imaginations of slumber, with Józef Sikorski writing: “the listener drawn into these magical dreamlands wonders instinctively after the last notes have died away if it all was reverie or reality”. While Chopin’s pregnant pauses in Nocturne No. 9 fill far more space than sound ever would, here, in his nascent relationship with the genre of Nocturne No. 1 does the composer produce something that, as Tomaszewski observes, “emerges from silence and to silence returns.”

© Andrew Filmer, 2013.

Sources:

Brown, Maurice J.E. and Kenneth L. Hamilton. “Nocturne (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Michałowski, Kornel and Jim Samson. “Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Parakilas, James. “Disrupting the Genre: Unforeseen Personifications in Chopin”, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 2012), University of California Press.

The Fryderyk Chopin Institute for notes by Artur Bieleki and Mieczysław Tomaszewski.

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