Our music for this week is the Nocturne in C Minor, Opus 48 #1.
This Nocturne is considered one of Chopin’s most emotionally powerful compositions. The full depth and breadth of the piano’s expressive range is explored in less than six minutes of music. The composer somehow blends a melancholy, almost despairing melody with a graceful sense of reverence.
How should one listen to this piece? By understanding its layout. There are three sections to this Nocturne. First, the piano opens with the mezza voce section. Mezza voce means “half voice,” which perfectly captures the hushed, sombre atmosphere of the opening line. The second section switches from C Minor to C major at 2:06. This section, with its more uplifting harmonic texture, is labeled sotto voce, which means “somewhat hushed.” But the music quickly becomes the opposite of hushed when it builds to a massive, tumbling climax around the 3:35 mark. You can hear forecasts of this explosion at 3:23. In a masterful bit of compositional genius, Chopin brings the initial melody from Part 1 back, this time with thunderous and heart-breaking passion. The third section returns to C Minor, resigned and exhausted, at 5:00.
This is the emotional power of music at its finest.
We are continuing our series on the Nocturnes for solo piano by Chopin with the Nocturne Opus 37 #2, performed by pianist Szymon Nehring.
The Opus 37 Nocturnes are considered the high point of Chopin’s compositional career. Robert Schumann, another famous pianist and composer, declared these Nocturnes to be “of that nobler kind under which poetic ideality gleams more transparently.” They tend to be less energetic than the earlier Nocturnes, and you’ll notice a pensiveness and hesitant quality in them that is absent from the Nocturnes we’ve heard thus far.
As we’ve discussed, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera and inserted bel canto style into his Nocturnes. This Nocturne is no exception. It is written in the form of a barcarolle, which was a song traditionally sung by Venetian gondoliers as they paddled through the canals of Venice. Just like the other Nocturnes, the Opus 37 #2 Nocturne has a rolling sense of momentum at the beginning and a relaxed development section in the middle. I’ve always felt that the beautiful middle section is almost hymn-like.
We are continuing our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano with the second Opus 27 Nocturne, performed by Evgeny Kissin.
Chopin grouped his Nocturnes in two or three-piece sets. These sets are categorized by Opus number. The Opus 27 Nocturnes, composed in 1835, are perhaps the most famous and well-loved of all the Nocturnes. They have been featured in multiple movies and television series.
The second of the Opus 27 Nocturnes is a perfect example of something we discussed a few weeks ago – Chopin’s obsession with the Italian bel canto style. As we know, Chopin was enamored with Italian opera. The flowery bel canto style captivated him, and he incorporated it into many of his Nocturnes. The songlike melodies of the Opus 27 #2 Nocturne showcase this bel canto style perfectly through passionate harmonic climaxes and an atmosphere of glittering delicacy that gives the piece an almost royal aura.
This Nocturne, aside from being one of Chopin’s most famous compositions, also played a role in shaping the future of music. In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig, Germany to play the Nocturnes for his friend Robert Schumann (another great Romantic-era composer). A young pianist, an acquaintance of Schumann’s, happened to be in attendance. He later told his sister that Chopin’s Opus 27 #2 Nocturne was a central inspiration for his career as a composer. In fact, he had even tried to incorporate its melodies into some of his own compositions.
This week’s music is the second installment in our series on Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. We will be hearing pianist Valentina Lisitsa play the Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2.
This is one of the most famous Nocturnes. It is beguiling yet simple, usually relying on a single melodic line and avoiding escalation until the very end. For this reason, it is particularly popular among young pianists who are beginning their journey into the music of Chopin.
Listen for the flowing melodic line. As we learned last week, Chopin was “enamored of flowing song” and drew much of his inspiration from opera music. His fellow pianist Wladyslaw Zelenski said that “Italian song was always his ideal.” You can hear the right hand of the pianist drawing out what could almost be a soprano aria line.
Chopin may have made the Nocturne famous, but he didn’t invent it. That honor goes to the Irish composer John Field, who wrote dozens of them for piano and other instruments. The Nocturne you will hear today is quite similar to many of those written by John Field, so it is likely that Chopin studied Field’s work as he developed his own compositions. However, Chopin’s works have, as Polish piano virtuoso Jan Kleczynski has noted, that “certain tinge of earnest sadness” that makes them so uniquely beautiful.
We start a new series today with the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. He wrote 21 of them, but we will be focusing on a select few that I think convey an accurate sense of the Nocturnes as a whole.
We are very fortunate to have Chopin’s notes on these pieces. He wrote that each Nocturne “bears our thoughts . . . toward those hours wherein the soul, released from all the cares of the day, is lost in self-contemplation.” Chopin is very clear: these works are meant to escort us into worlds of deep personal reflection.
The first Nocturne, which you will hear today, is the perfect example of this. It emerges from silence and leaves us in silence. Rolling gracefully along with the listener’s reflections, it surges to an appassionata middle section before retreating to its pensive starting point. Many commentators have described its ability to put the listener in a trance.
There’s a very surprisingly operatic aspect to this music that I would encourage you to listen for. Chopin studied in Warsaw, Poland, where Italian bel canto opera was wildly popular. It is almost certain that he listened to many operas during his time there, and several of the upper lines in his Nocturnes resemble bel canto soprano lines.
This week’s music is the first movement of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Each instrument has a composer that defines it. At some point in history, a composer makes such a difference in the repertoire of the instrument that its musicality is forever changed. For the violin, that person is Niccolo Paganini; for the cello, Pablo Casals; for the flute, James Galway; for the French horn, Hermann Baumann. For today’s featured instrument – the piano – that person was Frederic Chopin (although I will accept arguments for Franz Liszt if you feel so inclined). Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation of his second piano concerto is breathtaking because it captures the romanticism of Chopin while dashing off technical passages with amazing ease.
You will hear only the first of three movements in this concerto. As many of you know, the typical concerto format involves three movements (while the typical sonata has four and symphonies also usually have four). The movement is titled Maestoso, which means (loosely) “in a majestic manner.” This fits with the compositional style that Chopin was experimenting with at the time he wrote this concerto: “stile brilliante.” In the mid-1850s, Chopin and several of his contemporaries began to adopt the bel canto style of Italian composers like Rossini and Bellini. Unlike his predecessors (such as Beethoven), Chopin was not interested in crafting the perfectly balanced concerto. He was instead interested in magnifying the virtuosity of the pianist, and this first movement clearly showcases his quest for soloistic glory.
The twenty-second installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Nocturne in E-Flat Major by Frederic Chopin, performed by Valentina Lisitsa.
Any list of greatest hits would be incomplete without one of Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes for solo piano. They are one of the centerpieces of the piano repertoire. The Nocturne you will hear today is the second of the Opus 9 Nocturnes that were written in 1830 (when Chopin was only twenty years old). It is widely regarded as Chopin’s most famous composition.
The opening melody, which is one of the most famous lines in the piano repertoire, is repeated three times during the Nocturne. Listen for the elaborate decorations that Chopin adds to it each time it returns. You may also notice a somewhat hesitant feel to the music. This is a result of rubato, a stylistic marking that gives the performer the freedom to stretch the tempo in their interpretation of the music. When combined with the captivating sweetness of the melody and the rolling sonority of the bass line, this lilting pace gives the piece a peaceful, almost waltz-like quality.
Our music for this week is the Consolation in D-flat Major by Franz Liszt, performed by virtuoso pianist Valentia Lisitsa.
1849 was a wild year
for Franz Liszt. During that year, he completed two European tours with the
violinist Joseph Joachim, wrote both of his monumental piano concertos,
composed two symphonic poems, made a number of piano transcriptions, and engaged
in scandalous romantic affairs with at least two German princesses. On top of
all that, he managed to find time to compose six Consolations for solo piano.
The third Consolation, which you will hear today, is the most well-known of the
All six of the Consolations were composed in one of two keys – E Major or D-flat Major. It is interesting to note that, throughout his career, Liszt always wrote in E Major or D-flat Major when seeking to express a religious message. However, we have no indication from historical records exactly what that message was in the context of the third Consolation.
The D-flat Major
Consolation was an echo of Liszt’s colleague Chopin, who also wrote a D-flat
Major solo piano composition (although Chopin called it a Nocturne, not a
Consolation). It is very apparent that Liszt was imitating Chopin’s style in
writing the third Consolation. For instance, both pieces begin with a long and almost
breathless bel canto opening line in which the pianist’s right hand
weaves a soprano melody over the rolling bass-line of the left hand.
There was also a bit of technological experimentation involved in the composition of the third Consolation. Three years after composing it, Liszt received from Steinway & Company a brand-new grand piano with a newly invented feature – the sostenuto pedal. This pedal sustains only the notes that are being pressed down, essentially allowing the pianist to hold certain notes while playing other notes that are unaffected by the pedal. Liszt reportedly sent a re-drafted version of the D-flat Major Consolation to the managers of Steinway & Company to show them that he had adapted his compositional ability to their invention.
Today we wrap up our series on Chopin’s Ballades for solo piano with a wonderful performance by Krystian Zimmerman.
This Ballade was apparently inspired by the poem The Three Budrys by Adam Mickiewicz, but the poem isn’t about anything in particular so it is hard to say exactly what Chopin was thinking. However, his interpretive motivations did not stop him from connecting this Ballade to the previous three in a few important ways. For instance, you may hear near the end of the piece a refrain from the first Ballade. You may also notice that, like the three prior Ballades, this one is written in 6/8 time and has the same dancing, lilting feel to it. You may also note that it is in sonata form (opening, development, recapitulation), like the prior three Ballades. Finally, like the other three Ballades, the melody of this Ballade takes a few bars to truly open up. Rather than diving right into the main theme, Chopin starts with hesitation and takes his time developing the opening theme.
One of the most interesting ways to listen to this piece is to think of it in layers of complexity. For instance, notice how (at around the 1:30 mark) the music gets just ever so slightly more dense. Then, at the 3:30 mark, a third layer is added. At the 6-minute mark, Chopin adds yet another set of twists and turns to the music (for you harmony nerds out there, he does this by returning to the subdominant while also adding an amazing layer of fourths in the right hand). By the time we reach the end of the piece, we have experienced the growth of the melody from simplicity to complexity.
I hope you have enjoyed this journey through the mind of the greatest pianist of all time. Let me know if you have any requests for future series!
This week we begin a new series on the Ballades for piano by Frederic Chopin.
Chopin’s four Ballades for solo piano are some of the difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. As their name suggests, they are meant to evoke an almost medieval story-telling atmosphere. They are unique in that they don’t fit into any of the common musical formats that we tend to associate with solo piano music. For instance, they don’t have the structure of a sonata but they also lack the characteristics of a caprice.
The first Ballade was written in 1831, and it is said that, at the time, he viewed it as his best composition. This sentiment was shared by the great pianist and composer Robert Schumann, who simply told Chopin that it was the closest thing he had ever heard to pure genius. You will hear two primary themes in the music. The first comes within the first minute of the piece, directly after the introductory material that lasts only a few bars. This theme is more serene and lyrical, although when it is recapped later in the piece Chopin utilizes more of the keyboard to lend it some additional power. You will hear the second theme arrive around the six-minute mark of the video above. This second theme enters with an additional level of grandeur and nobility. Around 7:50, you will hear the beginning of the Coda, which is the final flourish of the Ballade. Chopin uses this “race to the finish” to provide a dramatic ending to the piece.