Standing near Chopin’s grave in Paris a few years ago, I watched and listened as a young woman in a group of tourists quietly hummed the melody from one of his nocturnes to herself as she paid her respects. John Field may have invented the Nocturne, but it was Chopin who truly patented it.
Why the enduring appeal of these pieces? Is it their luscious cantabile melodies, the colourful harmonies that delight and surprise us, the range of emotions that are expressed? All of the above, plus their variety, and the indescribable magic that they evoke. The dedicatees of the pieces constitute a roll-call of Chopin’s friends, associates and pupils, the great and the good, such as Mme Camille Pleyel, pictured left, daughter-in-law of Ignaz, the piano manufacturer. Then there is Ferdinand Hiller, friend and fellow pianist, and even Jane Stirling, the Scottish pupil who organised Chopin’s trip to Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1848, and who paid for his funeral the following year. Below is her Erard piano.
We all have our favourite nocturne; the woman by the graveside was humming Op 9 in E flat – which was also used in the film 127 Hours. My nocturne of choice, however, is Op 48 No 1 in C minor, composed in 1841.
The tempo is Lento – but to choose it, think of the speed at which you will play the last of the piece’s three sections, which begins at bar 50, marked Doppio movimento – which is double the speed of the second section, bar 25, marked Poco più lento. Therefore the opening will be slightly faster than that. And it’s mezza voce, that most Chopinesque of directions, literally meaning ‘half voice’ for the anguished but restrained cantabile melody singing over a discreetly measured accompaniment, which carefully picks its way through bass octaves and chords.
The aforementioned, slower second section signals a change: of tonality – to C major, and of texture – hands moving simultaneously together in a slow march, and of colour – to sotto voce, and even (initially) of range -the melody moves down to the alto register. Note, too, the arpeggiations of the chords, which have to be carefully judged.
All seems calm here, until a distant rumbling in the bass is heard, interrupting the flow. It continues to interject, gaining in volume each time, with a corresponding increase in the main theme’s dynamic level, like a speaker who has to raise his voice in order to be heard above an unwanted disturbance. By the end of the section both elements are at full strength leading to a huge climax; this ebbs away, and we return to the melody heard at the outset – but with a turbulent accompaniment. The denouement of the piece, at bar 73, is a masterstroke of harmonic genius – and one which is pure Chopin.
The piece ends quietly. Place the final three chords with due reverence.