Chopin’s bitter-sweet world

Chopin’s Nocturnes inhabit a strange world of light and shade, sadness and joy – a bitter-sweetness often mistaken for sentimentality. But there are dark horizons and repressed memories.

The Nocturne (or “night piece” for piano) was the invention of John Field (1782-1837), an Irishman whose early 19th century career as performer and composer took place in Russia. Field’s compositions were characterised by chromatically decorated melodies over an accompaniment that invited creative and sensitive pedalling. He wrote eighteen Nocturnes, which were admired by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) and the Hungarian piano virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-86), who described Field’s music as “half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolving in delicious melancholy.”

Chopin (portrait right) only met Field in 1832, but as a child he had probably heard his Nocturnes. During his lifetime, Chopin published eighteen Nocturnes of his own in sets of two or three, and after his death three more were discovered. One of Chopin’s innovations was to use counterpoint (Bach’s scores were never far from his side), a technique that increased the dramatic potential of the piece. Noting the bel canto style of the Nocturnes, Liszt also surmised that Chopin had been strongly influenced by the way Bellini wrote operatic arias.

The Nocturnes illustrate the ease with which Chopin merged different genres. Just as a waltz or a mazurka finds a ghostly place in a Ballade or Scherzo (often a fleeting vision like the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz), in many of the Nocturnes there is more than a hint of dance.

And then there are the more or less hidden elements of Chopin’s patriotism and nostalgia for his lost homeland (at that time annexed by Russia) – most obviously in the Polonaises. In her book Chopin’s Funeral (2003), the American writer Benita Eisler suggests that the Nocturnes conceal coded messages:

“Harmonies familiar only to Polish listeners pierce the isolation of the exile through communal memory: wisps of folk song, loops of mazurka. Summoning far-off church bells and drifts of chorale to recall Poland’s sacred mission, Chopin affirms, with painful intimacy, their collective loss.”

Perhaps this explains their bitter-sweetness and sense of longing, once again described by Liszt as the anguished cries of Poland that “lend to his art a mysterious, indefinable poetry which, for all those who have truly experienced it, cannot be compared to anything else.”

There are many fine recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes including those by Arthur Rubinstein, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Arrau and Maurizio Pollini. More recently listeners have praised those by Maria João Pires and Ivan Moravec. All are well worth seeking out.

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