Sakura Salon 10/5/2014 – Chopin Nocturnes

Last week we listened to Alexander Nevsky, which was a repeat and the write up can be found elsewhere in this blog!

The nocturne is generally credited to John Field, an Irish composer and pianist, who published his first three nocturnes in 1814. These romantic character pieces are written in a somewhat melancholy style, with an expressive, dreamy melody over broken-chord accompaniment. The majority of Chopin’s nocturnes adopt a simple A-B-A form. The A part is usually in a dreamy bel canto (beautiful singing) style, whereas the B part is of a more dramatic content. In distinction of melody, wealth of harmony and originality of piano style, Chopin’s nocturnes leave Field’s far behind.
Also notice that the nocturnes are of a homophonic texture, a single primary melody line, support by harmonies.
Nocturnes are highly personal, every pianist brings their own style to them.  One reason is the concept of rubato.  Tempo rubato is the concept of ‘stealing time’ (rubato means robbing).  Rubato is rarely used in music of Beethoven, Mozart and before but is more widespread after, and is especially present in the music of Chopin.
Rubato is essentially tempo flexibility.  Whereas ‘accelerando’ is a quickening of the tempe, and ‘ritardando’ is a slowing of the tempo, rubato is tastefully stretching, slowing, or hurrying the tempo as she/he sees fit, usually within a single phrase, thus imparting flexibility and emotion to the performance.
The concept (and this is general) is that a musical phrase will take x amount of time at a certain tempo.  Played rubato, the phrase will take the SAME amount of time, but some parts will be faster and some slower.  In effect, you are ‘robbing’ time from some beats and giving them to the other beats within that phrase.
In the Romantic period, the whole texture will be played rubato at the same time; while in jazz music sometimes the accompaniment part will be in strict time, while the melody will be played rubato.
* = not on our playlist tonight
Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 1 — Larghetto
This first work immediately confirms the character of the nocturne. The irregularity of the rhythmic patterns is one aspect of Chopin’s style of ornamentation that continues to find varied expression in later works such as Op. 27 No. 2.
Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2 — Andante
This nocturne resembles the style of Field’s Nocturne No. 9 in the same key. The left hand figuration is similar, and both have cadenza-like passages toward the end. This is Chopin’s most famous nocturnes.
*Nocturne in B Major, Op. 9 No. 3 — Allegretto
This nocturne is obscure and rarely performed. It is an exercise in lyricism and delicacy. Its development is paradoxical in its torrential gracefulness.
Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15 No. 1 — Andante Cantabile
The introduction of this night piece is calm and serene. This peace is followed by a stormy F minor central section, which purges sudden doubts and worries. A recapitulation follows, appeasing the anxiety and restoring the tranquility.
Nocturne in F-sharp Major, Op. 15 No. 2 — Larghetto
Although this Nocturne is fairly popular, this song is not so well known as the very famous nocturne in E-flat major. It has many more technical difficulties and requires more technique and a greater range of dynamics.
Nocturne in G Minor, Op. 15 No. 3 — Lento
In this Nocturne it is the irregularity and unpredictability of the phrasing that demands attention. It is wistful in its outer sections, with a hymn-like passage at its heart, marked religioso. To enhance the purity of this passage, Chopin deliberately refrained from using the sustaining pedal. The expected return to the opening, however, is replaced by a new idea, also somewhat modal in character. This seems to approach a cadence in D minor, but the concluding chords bring the music back to G, with an archaic 4-3 suspension and Picardy 3rd.
It is doubtful whether any consistent example of such harmony can be found of earlier date unless the third movement, “in the Lydian mode”, of Beethoven’s string quartet (Op. 132) is included.  A story goes that Chopin, upon seeing Hamlet, composed this nocturne and named it, On the Graveyard. After being asked later the reason for which he did not publish this title, Chopin answered: “Let them guess…”.
Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 1 — Larghetto
Also known as: “Les plaintives”, It is clouded in a dark atmosphere, full of suspense and inner tension. The middle part is leading into a more triumphant mood, as the chordal section expands a moment of temporary glory.
Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27 No. 2 — Lento sostenuto
This Nocturne begins with a serene melody of hypnotic beauty, floating over a sea of D-flat major harmony. Its development heightens the sense of drama, and the piece closes in waves of melting nostalgia. It is indeed supreme in its class of Parisian salon pieces, if not more.
*Nocturne in B Major, Op. 32 No. 1 — Andantino sostenuto
Artur Rubinstein had always ended this nocturne in major: “In the Debussy edition of Chopin, which I like, the B major nocturne ends with a major chord. In Chopin one shouldn’t discuss such things. Chopin changed his works constantly. […] I play the major chord because the minor chord weakens the ending: it weakens the whole theme.”
* Nocturne in A-flat Major, Op. 32 No. 2 — Lento
Compared with previous nocturnes, the tempo in the middle section remains the same and only the figuration changes. The degree in contrast is thereby reduced. It is a beautiful work of dreamy melody and majestic harmony.
Nocturne in G Minor, Op. 37 No. 1 — Andante sostenuto
Also known as Les soupirs, this nocturne is not technically demanding. The middle section is a strange chorale-like intermezzo in plain chordal writing.
Nocturne in G Major, Op. 37 No. 2 — Andantino
The elegant theme, in parallel thirds and sexts, is presented in a surprising variety of keys, so that little sense of overall tonality remains. The middle section is a peaceful lullaby.
Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 No. 1 — Lento
This one reaches beyond the accepted domain of the nocturne: its virtuoso piano writing is reminiscent of the ballades.
*Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48 No. 2 — Andantino
A seemingly endless melody is played with restless triplets in the left hand.
Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55 No. 1 — Andante
These nocturnes of opus 55 were not greeted by the superlatives that the early nocturnes attracted.
Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2 — Lento
It is an application of the greatest depth, containing a melody of infinite natural quality. Its development and flow are breathtaking.
*Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62 No. 1 — Andante
A work of elaborate ornamentation and elementary simplicity, this piece suits the definition of charm. It is demanding in terms of both technique and musicality.
*Nocturne in E Major, Op. 62 No. 2 — Lento
This work was composed in October 1846, and it is the last nocturne that Chopin published during his life (in 1846).
Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72 No. 1 (posth.) — Andante
This nocturne lies clearly within the Field tradition. Its haunting melody rides the harmony of a most macabre scale.
Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (posth.) — Lento con gran espressione
This nocturne uses themes from the F minor concerto (Op. 21). Tamas Vasary: “If you didn’t know about the reminiscence, you would still have the impression that both works live in the same emotional climate.”
*Nocturne in C Minor
This nocturne was published in 1938 (TWMP, Warsaw) together with the E-flat minor Largo (BI109). It was composed in 1837 and published in 1938.



Sakura Salon – Chopin’s Preludes 1/7/14

Most of the 24 Chopin Preludes were sketched out between 1837 and 1838. They are the ultimate miniatures. In an age when the symphony and sonata still held sway, these Preludes were revolutionary.

The term “prelude” usually refers to a relatively brief, improvised (or improvised-sounding) piece that introduces the following work. Such a piece typically establishes the mood, as well setting up the tonal area of what follows.
However, Chopin’s preludes are meant to stand on their own, both as entities separate from one another and from any other works.

Chopin’s major influence was Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, in which the Baroque master created a paired prelude and fugue in each major and minor key. Chopin does something similar, except that instead of moving by step (C, C-sharp, D, D-sharp, etc.), he pairs each major key with its relative minor and proceeds up by a perfect fifth. Thus, he begins with C major and A minor, next gets to G major and E minor, and ends with F major and D minor. Such an approach is called the “circle of fifths.” Also, Chopin creates a single item for each key, instead of Bach’s two-part combination.

The preludes range widely in style and emotion, which is somewhat indicated by the main marking for each piece. These include: “Agitated,” “Slowly,” “Lively,” “Very slowly,” “Quite quickly,” “Very fast,” “Sustained” (i.e., in the “Raindrop Prelude”), “Very fast, with fire,” “In a singing style,” “Moderately,” and “Quickly, with passion”.

The pieces are highly-focused and concise. All except two contain a single musical idea, each boiled down to its essence. Ten are under a minute in length; nine last just over a minute. Only the celebrated No. 15, the so-called “Raindrop Prelude,” attains the length characteristic of a small piece, usually coming in at about 4½ minutes.

The music critic Henry Finck (1854-1926) once wrote that “if all piano music in the world were to be destroyed, excepting one collection, my vote should be cast for Chopin’s Preludes”. This short statement succinctly captures the genius in these twenty-four gems, and anyone who is familiar with the preludes is left to wonder why they are not heard more often in concert halls. A similar mindset is shared by a Chopin scholar, Jeremy Nicholas, when he writes that “Even on their own, the 24 Preludes would have ensured Chopin’s claim to immortality”. In spite of their brevity – and, sometimes, technical ease – they are by no means simple pieces. From the sight-readable to the transcendental, all impart a significant musical idea and take a true virtuoso to render well.

Perhaps, however, the best single word to describe Chopin’s preludes is “enigmatic”. They have earned mixed reception from Chopin’s contemporaries and most ardent followers. Robert Schumann, who uttered the now-famous “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” gave the following criticism on the preludes: “I would term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruins – individual eagle wings of all disorder and wild confusions.” As for more positive criticism, Liszt said that these same pieces “are compositions of an order entirely apart… they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams and elevates it to the regions of the ideal.”