The term ‘nocturnal’ refers to things or events that are, for the most part, associated with the night. That in itself has a wealth of meaning when it comes to considering pieces of music that in themselves are composed to in some way reflect the idea of something nocturnal. Maybe the night is terrifying as the imagination plays cruel tricks, or is it the beauty of the summer stars twinkling amongst the distant, icy galaxies?
In the 18th Century, the word did not have a direct association with the night and all its possibilities. Mozart’s pieces such as the ‘Notturno’, K. 286, is simply a piece of music written to be performed in the evening or night time, rather a composition created to evoke the feelings and atmospheres of the night. Haydn also composed a good number of pieces titled ‘Nocturnes’, and similar to the Mozart pieces, there were intended for a performance at night without intent to conjure an image of the night.
It was in the 19th Century that the word ‘nocturne’ became more closely linked to the idea of a composition specifically composed in response to the night. To my mind, the iconic nocturne or nocturnes are those of Chopin. It is almost impossible to hear that word without immediately jumping to listen to one of those wonderful solo piano works, although Chopin is not considered to be the first composer to embed the concept of a nocturne into the Romantic period. For many scholars, John Field (1782-1837) Irish born composer and pianist, is credited with being the ‘father’ of the nocturne we love and recognize today.
Even though Field’s name is not heard as often as it perhaps should be these days, in his time he was a well-respected and celebrated concert pianist and composer. He was very highly thought of in the world of music and his influence is reflected in the compositions of Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt. If the accounts are to be believed, Field whilst on a tour of Vienna played in front of Beethoven who heaped praise on the young pianist. Field was tutored and later befriended by Clementi who set him on a certain path of success. He met and impressed Mendelssohn whilst in London and is thought to have made a major contribution to the establishment of the Russian Piano School.
As a composer Field was somewhat unusual in the stylistic choices he made in his compositions. He favored the use of pedal points around which to orientate his harmonies and made effective use of ostinato patterns. Neither of these compositional techniques was prevalent at the time but gave Field’s music a particular and distinctive sound. Field composed, amongst many other works, 18 Nocturnes that exemplified what came to be identified as the ‘post-London style’, characterized by homophonic textures and chromatically ornamented melodic lines. This you will recognize in the Nocturnes of Chopin, but it was the music of Field that began what Chopin became known for.
Chopin was not only a phenomenal pianist but a composer of great sensitivity and refinement. Amongst his extensive output for piano is the 21 Nocturnes. These are cataloged from Op. 9 through to Op. 72 and span the composer’s brief life.
Chopin – Nocturne Op. 9
Chopin – Nocturne Op. 72
Two further nocturnes, the C# Minor and the C Minor were published posthumously with the former under a certain degree of suspicion as to its genuine composer. The range of the Chopin Nocturnes is as extensive as the span of his lifetime it occupied. They certainly do owe a debt of gratitude to Field, but they are also in no way an attempt to copy his style. Chopin’s Nocturnes stand as a unique collection of piano works. Each one draws on Chopin’s virtuosic technique and enviable ability to compose a delicious melody.
Broadly speaking they each have a ternary form (A-B-A) and are homophonic in texture but this in no way paints the full picture of the collection. Chopin developed his extended forms influenced by Italian Aria and possibly even French opera. The flow of the Nocturnes does on more than a single occasion give the feel of something operatic underpinned with a sense of narrative, drama and deep expression. Perhaps what characterizes the Chopin Nocturnes is the ‘tempo rubato’ that he writes for the right-hand of the piano. In these passages, the melody appears to float independently to the rhythm and pulse of the accompaniment.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the idea of the nocturne had taken another step in its evolution. This most clearly stands out in the works of the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Like Chopin, Debussy was a pianist and composer who composed a considerable number of beautiful pieces for the instrument. The ‘Three Nocturnes’ are not piano pieces but orchestral ones. Each of the three pieces is titled as follows,
These titles give a clue to Debussy’s musical intentions which were not to bring the images of night time to the ear of the listener but to compose pieces that explore the effects of light that nocturne as a word can imply. That said, the interpretations of these works can be many. Such is the immense skill with which Debussy orchestrates these Nocturnes, that you can hear them in an almost infinite number of ways.
What rendered the critics of the time speechless was Debussy’s use of form and motivic material. Debussy blends his musical material meticulously incorporating subtle changes of direction and mood alongside a stillness that allows his music to develop organically. The first two nocturnes have a remarkably subdued atmosphere supported in ‘Sirenes’, by a female choir who sing without words, adding an ethereal quality to the piece. The contrast to this is ‘Fêtes’ in which Debussy exploits all his impressionistic mastery in creating swirls of dazzling color. A central passage brings a calm as if watching a parade before the luminescence of the first section returns.
Finally, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók deserves a brief mention. He created his own ‘night music’ that emerged through a whole gamut of his compositions including the
the Concerto for Orchestra,
and the 3rd Piano Concerto.
Bartók’s ‘night music’ tends towards the disturbed, dissonant and darker edge of the night. Bartók is thought to have tried to capture the sounds of night animals in his music alongside the echoes of folk-melody and the endless space of the night sky.