Dearest readers, it has been a couple of weeks since my last post, but my Masters degree has had to take priority. Not long until I can blog much more regularly! Today’s blog is based on a wonderful Nocturne by Polish composer, Frédérich Chopin. This piece was chosen by my very good friend, Dominik, as it was recently his birthday, so I hope you enjoy this blog!
Frédéric Chopin (initially born Fryderyk) was born 1st March 1810 in Zelazowa Wola (west of Warsaw), Poland. Chopin’s father, Nicolas was a Frenchamn who emigrated to Poland in 1787 and in 1806 married Justyna Krzyzanowska. In 1810, only six months after Chopin was born, the family moved to Warsaw where Nicolas gained a job teaching French at the Warsaw Lyceum. This meant the family were housed in the Saxon Palace, and it was here that Chopin began receiving informal music lessons. Both his mother and father played instruments such as flute, violin and piano. After his mother informally taught him piano, Chopin then began receiving professional music lessons in 1816 from Czech pianist Wojchiech Żywny. It was at this point that Chopin began giving public concerts, as well as writing out some of his first compositions. After receiving organ lessons from Wilhelm Würfel between 1823-1826, Chopin began a three-year course under Silesian composer Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he studied figured bass, composition and music theory. Whilst studying, Chopin often gave public recitals of both his own compositions and other people’s, this relied a lot on his extensive travelling at this time. He visited cities such as Berlin, Paris and Vienna and of course living in Warsaw he had many opportunities to meet musicians such as Niccolo Paganini, who encouraged Chopin to finish writing his first set of Études (1829-1832).
Chopin’s signature ‘delicate touch’ in both his performance and compositional style opened up many doors for him in Europe. After receiving positive reviews from many different cities he continued on his travels through Italy and France. Returning to Paris in 1831, he would never go back to Poland, making Chopin a part of the Polish Great Emigration. Gaining French citizenship in 1835, Chopin used the French version of his name (Frédérich, instead of Fryderyck). During the mid-nineteenth century, Paris was full of creative musicians such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Ferinand Heine, and Chopin became acquainted with these and many more. After many public concerts and hard work, Chopin had established himself into the elite of Parisian musicians, and he earned a lot of respect from his peers. For the first time he properly supported himself financially (instead of relying on his fathers wealth). From this point he ceased from giving public concerts, as it was something he disliked doing, however he played at private salons and other private functions.
Chopin met Felix Mendelssohn at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in the spring of 1834, and they spent a whole day playing and discussing music at a piano which Mendelssohn described as ‘a very agreeable day.’ Chopin led a very fruitful career in composition, performance and teaching, and in 1836 he had his first encounter with George Sand (b. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin). Upon first meeting her, Chopin was repelled and questioned what kind of woman she was due to her height, dark eyes and habit of smoking cigars. Rumours did surface about an affair that may have taken place between Chopin and Sand, with Sand writing her love and lust for the composer in a collection of letters. By 1838 the two became lovers and they spent a bleak winter in Majorca with Sand’s two children. The trip was in aid of Chopin’s declining health, but once Majorca locals found out the couple were not married (it was a very Catholic place), they found it nearly impossible to find anywhere to stay. Although declining in health, Chopin had a productive year composition-wise, which led to a collection of preludes and ballades being published.
From 1842 Chopin showed signs of his health declining at a fast rate. Bed-ridden for quite some time, Chopin’s friends often visited him and commented on his decline in health with Charles Hallé claiming that he was “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” As Chopin deteriorated, Sand became less of a lover and more of a nurse, whom she often called her ‘third child.’ After 10 years together, Chopin ended the relationship after Sand published a book which was uncomplimentary towards the composer. After overcoming being bed-ridden (but still fairly ill), Chopin visited London and made his last ever public concert appearance at London’s Guildhall on 16th November 1848, where he gave a patriotic gesture to Polish refugees. Upon his return to Paris, Chopin’s health very quickly deteriorated and his sister Ludwika came to be with him in his final few months. Chopin had a list of requests for his funeral which included music from some of his friends such as Franchomme and Potocka. He also requested that his body be opened after death for two main reasons, the first being his fear of being buried alive and secondly so his heart could be returned to Warsaw and laid to rest at the Church of the Holy Cross. Just before 2am on 17th October 1849 Chopin passed away with his sister Ludwika, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, Sand’s daughter Solange and Thomas Albrecht at his side.
Chopin’s catalogue of music reaches around 235 compositions, most of which are for solo piano. He was educated in the tradition of Beethoven, Mozart and Clementi, and was also very much influenced by Haydn and Hummel. Chopin was the first to compose ballades and scherzi as individual concert pieces (usually they come in a set). He is known for his études, nocturnes and polonaises, which make up a large proportion of his musical archive. His music is still very popular today, with his music being regularly recorded and performed worldwide. Composers such a Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Stravinksy and Milhaud were all influenced in some way by Chopin’s compositional technique. The emotional depth that Chopin found within his nocturnes and other popular forms placed him away from his peers, and is perhaps one of the reasons why his music is still so popular. Most importantly, even when not in Poland, Chopin made sure his unique Polish character style of writing music came across, and many of the dance pieces he composed reflect this. His technically demanding style makes his music a challenge for any pianist, both technically and emotionally.
For this blog I shall be looking at his Nocturne Op. 15 No. 3 which was composed between 1832-1833 in Paris. As part of a set of three, this particular nocturne is striking for a number of reasons, not least its beauty and elegance. Dedicated to Ferdinan Hiller, a German composer whose music has been somewhat forgotten in the modern (although he was dubbed as one of the ‘greats’ in the nineteenth century). No. 3 deviates from the ‘usual’ trends that are seen in Chopin’s nocturnes. With the previous five nocturnes using an arpeggiated accompaniment, No. 3 uses block chords for a large portion of the piece. The work is also in binary form, not ternary like you would expect a nocturne to be in, therefore there is no repetition of the first section. The melody is also rather fragmented and not as flowing as you would expect, however Chopin was able to extract the beauty and tenderness of the music, so that it doesn’t actually seem that different to his previous works. His use of chromaticism plays a large role in this and is used to transition into sections, omitting a lot of cadences and giving the continuous night-time aesthetic that is usually sought after in a nocturne.
Beginning in G Minor, the first section of the nocturne can be cut into two defining sections. The first a thematic part in the home key which leads into a short developmental passage that leads into a subtle coda which brings us to the second section. This section is unusually marked religioso and is comprised of chorale-like chordal sequences. This section ends with a tierce de picardy (like with all Chopin nocturnes), however it does not return to the first section, which is why it isn’t in ternary form.
The idea of a nocturne is to portray the nighttime, and No. 3 does this by portraying elements of mystery and tense characteristics with the use of extreme dynamics and the two defining sections. This work is in a relaxing 3/4 time and this creates a ‘loose’ improvisation feel with the melody as it often plays irregular melodic structures. The first twelve bar phrase is an example of this, with it not being in three 4 bar phrases, but instead two 6 bar phrases. B. 4 there is a prolonged high F in the melody, which carries for 3.5 bars, which eventually resolves to D, which is part of the diminished chord of iii and not i. This leaves no sense of revolution, hence the mysterious and tense atmosphere. There is a sense of uneasiness throughout the whole of this piece and it all stems from the irregular melodic structures set out from the beginning of the work.
Although beginning in G minor, the work quickly moves away from the home key and ends up in non-related keys such as F# sharp major (in the development section). The religioso section is the most intriguing to me as it begins in F major with the use of pedalling creates a grand feeling – reminiscent of church chorales. There seems to be more structure to this section, with continuity in the melody being supported by the block chords and more conventional cadence points. The melody and accompaniment develop together and create an intriguing dialogue which combine religious and nighttime ideas together. Due to the main melody not using ornamentation, the relationship between the two parts can be heard and appreciated a lot more.
To conclude, Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 15 No. 3 is experimental in terms of form and harmony, which shows his technique in developing genre. This inputted into his musical language and aided his development as a composer who wanted to break the boundaries that were created before him. Instead of the harmony going major-minor, Chopin switches this around and goes from minor-major to create a reverse of the norm. Chopin is known for his beautiful compositional technique, and this is brought to light in this particular nocturne, with the weight of cadences taken out, this light work contains flowing elements of nighttime with experimental structures and chromaticisms, which is what makes it such a wonderful work. Chopin originally entitled this nocturne “At the Cemetery” but soon got rid of this saying “Let them work it out for themselves” – food for thought indeed.
This blog is dedicated to my wonderful friend, el presidenté extraordinaire, Dominik Kocbuch, who is a reader of my blog and supporter of the work I do – I hope you have had a lovely birthday, enjoy this blog! Thank you for being your lovely self.