The genre title ‘nocturne’ was fairly commonplace in early nineteenth-century piano music, influenced no doubt by the enhanced cultural status of the night (famous texts by Novalis and Madame de Staël), and also by the growing importance of the salon as a site of pianism. Initially it was applied to a wide diversity of pieces, but in the hands of John Field and Chopin it came to be associated with a pianistic style shaped by vocal imitation, whether of the French romance or the Italian aria. By the time Chopin came to compose his Nocturnes Op 27 in 1835, the genre was already a well-established one, with the archetype of the ‘nocturne sound’—ornamental melody supported by widespread arppeggiations—firmly in place. The Nocturnes of Op 27 broadly conform to this, but they did mark an intriguing change in how Chopin presented this genre to the world. From this point onwards, he published his Nocturnes in contrasted pairs rather than in groups of three, giving greater weight to the individual pieces within an opus but at the same time preserving a sense of their mutual compatibility. Chopin was happy to perform the individual Nocturnes of Op 27 separately (especially the second, which he played in Paris, England and Scotland), but he conceived them as perfectly complementary, with the darkly brooding C sharp minor of the first (James Huneker referred to ‘the gloomiest and grandest of Chopin’s moody canvasses’) transformed enharmonically into the consolatory, oneiric D flat major of the second. That these were pieces of exceptional artistic quality was immediately recognized when they were published in 1836, not least by Schumann in the pages of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik
, where he described them as exemplifying a ‘new wave’ of piano music.
There are two formal principles underlying a good deal of Chopin’s music, and they are neatly exemplified by the two Nocturnes of Op 27. The C sharp minor relies on contrast. It is an expansive ternary design in which the middle section steps up the tempo and even more the drama, culminating in a brief waltz-like episode (another typical gesture; compare the First Ballade and Second Scherzo). The D flat major, on the other hand, is through-composed and goal-directed, and its construction is immensely subtle. There are two alternating melodies, of which the first is non-repetitive and aria-like, elaborated with an ever more expressive ornamentation, but remaining essentially static, if music can ever be static. The energy and momentum is provided by the second, stanzaic melody, which is developmental in character. Here the ornamentation has a rather different function. It is not so much an expressive enhancement of the melody as a means of driving the music in a dynamic and evolutionary way towards its major tension points; in other words it plays a key structural role in the music. Taken together, the two themes represent Chopin’s ornamental melody at its finest. The opera house was one obvious influence; Mozart another.
from notes by Jim Samson © 2009