Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), Nocturne Op. 9, no. 2


Historical Background (including biography)

Life and Career of Chopin
  • Born in the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland: father French, mother Polish
  • Studied piano and composition in Warsaw
  • Child prodigy: performances in private salons and public recitals in Poland and abroad
  • Travels to Paris in 1830--cannot return due to unstable political situation in Warsaw
  • Relationship with Georges Sande
  • Establishes a career composing (publishing) and teaching rather than performing
  • The revolution of 1848 destabilizes Paris society--loses students
  • Attempts to revive a concert career but very sick (TB) by that time

Compositions by Chopin
  • Solo piano music: sonatas, ballades, polonaises, mazurkas, scherzos, waltzes
  • Concerto and other works for piano and orchestra
  • Songs (in Polish)
  • Chamber Music

Warsaw in the early 19th century
  • "Triple Partition" since the late 18th century: division of Poland among Russia, Prussia, and Austria (Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire)
  • Multiple attempts at insurrections and other fights for independence unsuccessful including the Warsaw uprise of 1830: Chopin had already left Poland at this time.

Paris in the early 19th century
  • Politicaly turbulent time
  • Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after the Congress of Vienna in 1815
  • July Revolution of 1830 deposes Charles X and replaced him with his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans
  • Revolution of 1848 deposes Louis-Philippe, eventually replaced by Napoleon III (Second Empire)

Cultural Context

Nationalism in Poland
  • Development of a strong urge for independence
  • Cultivation of cultural nationalism based on language, music, dance, history, religion (Catholicism although sizable Jewish population in Poland), literature, etc.
  • Artists in exiles included the poet Mickiewic who influenced Chopin (and later Mahler)

Paris as a cosmopolitan musical capital
  • The ascendancy of a powerful middle class that emulated the culture of the old aristocracy who demanded new kind of musical entertainment: grand opera
  • Competing aristocratic salons: private gatherings for writers, artists, and important social figures who conversed and exchanged artistic ideas; performances of music often took place featuring professional as well as amateur (often aristocratic) musicians.
  • Paris attracted talents from all over Europe (and in some case the New World like Gottschalk). Most important Italian opera composers eventually came to Paris including Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and (temporarily at least) Verdi.
  • German composers also were active in Paris most notably Meyerbeer (and less succsessfully so Wagner)

Analytical Commentaries

Nocturne (night piece): short composition usually for the solo piano popularized by Chopin and other early Romantic composers characterized by embellished melody over chordal accompaniments evoking a mysterious and contemplative mood.

Listen for the following characteristics:

Texture

  • Clear division of the labor between the right hand the left hand
  • Idiomatic writing for the piano

The Right-Hand Part
  • Plays contrasting 4-measure melodies
  • Chopin repeats the melodies by adding chromatic embellishments (trills, turns, mordents, appoggiaturas)
  • The variety of embellishments gives an impression of improvisation

The Left-Hand Part
  • Plays the chordal accompaniments spanning a wide range
  • The use of pedal makes it possible to sustain the harmony

Tempo and Rhythm
  • Flexible tempo that slows down and speeds up giving an impression of improvisation
  • This approach to manipulate the tempo is called tempo rubato (stolen time)
  • Try to follow the performer's tempo by conducting or tapping the beat

Cadenza
  • The third the last measure consists of the right hand repeating the same chromatic figuration over a dominant harmony (V chord)
  • This resembles a cadenza in a concerto or an aria in an opera
  • It showcases the technical virtuosity of the performer

Coda
  • The melody disappears in the last two measures
  • You hear repeating chordal figuration and finally three chords
  • Provides a contrast with the cadenza and gives a sense of winding down



Listening Examples:
  • Please compare the following two performances - especially how they handle the embellishments and the tempo rubato.
  • Which performance do you prefer and why?

  1. Video with commentary [Jean Yves Thibaudet, 2000 ]
  2. Audio only of Sergei Rachmaninoff's performance [recorded in 1927]