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8.550257 - CHOPIN: Nocturnes (Selection)

Fryderyk Chopin (1610.1849)

Fryderyk Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, in 1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin, was French by birth, but had been taken to Poland in 1787, at the age of sixteen, working first as a clerk in a tobacco factory, before taking part in the Polish rising against the foreign domination of the country as an officer in the National Guard. After the failure of this attempt, he was able to earn his living as a French tutor in various private families, and in 1806 he married a poor relation of his then employer, Count Skarbek.

Chopin was to inherit from his father a fierce sense of loyalty to Poland, a feeling that he fostered largely in self-imposed exile, since the greater part of his career was to be spent in Paris. His early education, however, was in Warsaw, where his father had become a teacher at a newly established school. He was able to develop his already precocious musical abilities with piano lessons from the eccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist from Bohemia, who shared Nicolas Chopin’s enthusiasm for Poland and was able to inculcate in his pupil a sound respect for the great composers of the eighteenth century. Chopin later took lessons from the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, Jozef Elsner, and entered the Conservatory as a student in 1828. By then he had already developed his own individual style as a pianist and had written, during the previous ten years, a number of pieces for the piano.

Warsaw offered a restricted environment for musical achievement, although Chopin was able to hear Hummel there in 1828 and the violinist Paganini in the following year. He had already acquired a considerable local reputation when in 1830 he set out for Vienna, where he was to pass the winter with very little to show for it. An earlier visit to Vienna had aroused interest, but this second visit, undertaken with a more serious purpose, produced nothing, and the following summer he set out for Paris, where he was to spend much of the rest of his life. 

Chopin’s attitude to Paris was at first ambivalent. As a provincial he found much to shock him, while, at the same time, there was much to impress him in the splendour of the city and in the diversity of music there. He was to create a special place for himself as a teacher to some of the most distinguished families and as a performer in more intimate social gatherings than the theatres and concert-halls where his cruder contemporary Franz Liszt could excel.

By 1837 Chopin had embarked on a liaison with the writer George Sand, born Aurore Dupin, the estranged wife of Baron Dudevant, generally spending the summer at her country estate at Nohant. The winter of 1838 was spent with her in Malleroa, where an attempt to battle against a high wind seriously affected his lungs, already weakened by tuberculosis. Thereafter Chopin’s relationship with George Sand took a more conventional course, until the jealousies and rivalry of her two children led to a final quarrel in 1 847, George Sand and Chopin were never to be reconciled, and he died in Paris in 1849, his health having deteriorated considerably during the course of a visit to England and Scotland the year before, when Paris was undergoing revolution.

As a composer Chopin’s achievement was remarkable. He perfected his own idiomatic style of performance, in which technical problems seemed not to exist, a style of delicate nuance and elegance. His music, suited to his manner of playing, showed considerable originality in its exploration of harmony and in its expansion of existing forms and creation of new ones, opening a world that later composers were to continue to develop.

The invention of the Nocturne is generally credited to the Irish pianist John Field, who published his first three piano Nocturnes in Leipzig in 1814. He was to write fifteen more such pieces, exploiting the possibilities of the newly developing pianoforte in melodies inspired by contemporary Italian operatic practice and accompaniments that broke away from the typical Alberti bass of an earlier generation. Field made his later career, from 1802 until his death in 1537, in Russia, and it was probable that Chopin heard something of his music in Warsaw. At any rate he wrote the first of his 21 Nocturnes in 1827, before he left Poland. His last Nocturne was written in 1846, three years before his early death.

The first Nocturnes of Chopin to be published were the three that form Opus 9. These were written in 1803 and 1831 and dedicated to the pianist Marie Moke, who had recently deserted her fiancé Berlioz in favour of the piano-manufacturer Camille Moke. In the year of publication, 1833, her former teacher Kalkbrenner, one of the great virtuosi of the time, dedicated to her his Fantaisie et variations sur une mazourka de Chopin. Opus 9 No. 1, in B Flat Minor, is operatically characteristic in its melodic writing: the second of the set, in E Flat Major, is among the most popular, while the third, in B Major, more expansive in form, has a relatively cheerful mood, tinged, nevertheless, with sadness.

1833 saw the publication of a further three Nocturnes, dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller, a pupil of Mozart’s pupil Hummel, who from 1828 spent a period of seven years in Paris, where he had frequent contact with Chopin. The F Major Opus 15 No. 1 has a stormy F minor central section before serenity is restored: Opus 15 No. 2, a larghetto in F Sharp Major, is among the best known, and Opus 15 No. 3, in G Minor, is wistful in its outer sections, with a hymn-like passage at its heart.

Two Nocturnes, Opus 27 Nos. 1 and 2, in C Sharp and D Flat Major respectively, were composed in 1835 and published the following year with a dedication to the Countess Appónyi, wife of the Austrian ambassador in Pans, her husband’s name familiar from earlier musical patronage in Vienna in the time of Haydn and Beethoven. The tranquility of the night scene of the first is disturbed by the passionate intensity of a middle section that moves into the enharmonic dominant key of A flat, stilled by a return to the serenity of the opening. The second of the set proposes two principal themes, the subject of much dramatic embellishment.

Opus 32, published in Berlin in 1837, consists of two Nocturnes, in B Major and A Flat Major respectively, which are dedicated to Chopin’s pupil the Baronne do Billing, the first adventurous in its harmonic exploration and the second equally characteristic in its mounting intensity of feeling.

The two Nocturnes of Opus 37, published in 1840, were written in 1838 and 1839. The first of the set, in G minor, frames a chordal central section between passages in which the operatic melodic material predominates. The two Nocturnes of Opus 48 wore published in Paris the following year dedicated to yet another pupil, Laure Duperré. In the first a C minor melodic opening leads to a slower C major chordal passage that leads to music of greater passion and an elaborated version of the material of the first C minor passage. The second of the group, in F Sharp Minor, grows more solemn in its central section, before the return of the principal theme.

Chopin published the two Nocturnes of 1843 in the following year, dedicating them to his Scottish pupil Jane Wilhelmina Stirling a 40-year-old spinster of no particular musical talent and an enthusiastic supporter of the composer. The first of the set, in F minor, makes more demands on a performer’s musical than technical ability. Two more Nocturnes were published in 1846. The posthumously published Opus 72 No. 1, in E minor, was written in 1827, Chopin’s first attempt at the form, when he had already developed something of his very particular style of writing for the piano.

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