Frédéric Chopin composed almost two dozen nocturnes, starting in 1829 as a young man and continuing until his death. By that time, the genre already had a long history. Initially, the nocturnes were called Catholic Church evening services, and in the 18th century they began to be known as orchestral suites that were performed at night time – a kind of serenade. This is what Mozart’s orchestral nocturnes are like.
The genre was rediscovered in 1812 by the Irish musician John Field. He succeeded in transforming the nocturne into drawing room music for the piano – it was at this time that “night scenes” began to gain in popularity in theatres, lit by the moonlight, sometimes idyllic, sometimes gloomy or “gothic”. In turn, Chopin transformed the nocturne into something akin to “songs without words”. In his nocturnes, starting with his very first opuses, he imitates various vocal genres – arias, romances and even chorales. The performer has to be able to sing on the piano. And as the bel canto style was in fashion and Chopin was a fanatical admirer of opera, the melodies of the nocturnes are typically “lit up” with extremely virtuoso ornamental passages.
Andante spianato from the Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22
In the works of Frédéric Chopin, the Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22, heralds the culmination of the “style brillante” – a concerto style that dates back to the early 1830s. Chopin himself performed this work on stage with an orchestra as long as he was appearing on stage. In the Grande Polonaise brillante, first place is taken by the piano soloist and the orchestra is given the humble role of accompanist.
In the early 1830s Chopin prefaced the introduction “Andante spianato for piano solo”. The Italian word “spianato” means “evenly”. After this there comes another remark on the score – “tranquillo”. The grand, serene solo was written in the manner of a barcarole, the even movement of which interrupts the episode in the rhythm of a mazurka. Chopin, in taking the polonaise out of the drawing rooms and onto the concert stage, thus decided to strengthen the national character of the work, including yet another Polish dance in the composition.
Four Mazurkas, Op. 33
Four Mazurkas, Op. 33, were written in 1838 and were dedicated to the Countess Roza Mostowska. It was a very productive year for Chopin. He travelled a great deal, spending the summer together with George Sand and her children on Majorca, and he penned piano works one after the other.
Before Chopin, there had been various traditions of the mazurka, and the dance was equally a folk one as well as one for the drawing rooms. All of these nuances were reflected in his music when, in the very early 1830s, he was in Vienna and turned to mazurkas for the first time in his search for a national Polish style. But his pieces stand apart for their complexity, previously all but unknown in the genre, the refined quality of the music and their emotional wealth.
The Four Mazurkas, Op. 33, are just so. The rare tonality of the first of them – G Sharp Minor – emphasises the originality of his composition. The Third Mazurka in C Major contains echoes of village dances, and the final Mazurka in B Minor became a vast and fully developed composition which, in terms of its complexity, goes far beyond the bounds of drawing room music.
Sonata No 2 in B Flat Minor
If one had to choose from all of Frédéric Chopin’s works for the piano – polonaises, mazurkas, études, ballades, scherzos and waltzes – then the choice would probably fall on the Second Sonata. All of the styles of which the composer had a great command, be they for the drawing room, concert hall or dances, are reflected in this work – a monumental sonata cycle, where the stormy romantic fantasy is restrained by the strict classical form.
The Sonata appeared in 1837, a difficult year for Chopin (difficult for personal reasons). All three of the composer’s piano sonatas are in minor key, although the tonality of the Second B Flat Minor – is the gloomiest of the three. The most famous section of the Sonata is the funeral march. Chopin had composed this somewhat earlier and later included it in the sonata. It had operatic origins, in all probability being based on the march from Rossini’s La gazza ladra. The finale with its ascetic structure (without any division of melody and accompaniment), unique for romantic music, was probably influenced by Bach.
Polonaise Op. 53 in A Flat Major (Héroïque)
The Héroïque Polonaise Op. 53, completed in 1843, was the last in a series of Polonaises by Frédéric Chopin. Only his Polonaise-Fantaisie would follow. The Polonaise in A Flat Major has two unique qualities – the grand and heroic style and the vivid national flavour. There are no traces of the drawing room polonaises of Chopin’s youth, which contained nothing Polish and less that was heroic.
When Chopin was working unhurriedly on his late polonaises (sometimes over a year), Verdi and his compatriots were giving their heroes virtuoso cabalettas in the rhythm of the polonaise without fear or rebuke. Alas, Chopin never wrote a Polish national opera, something his native country had expected of him... If he had done so, the lead character would certainly have been a polonaise aria. But his piano polonaises are no less virtuoso and vast in scale, and they demand no less brilliance from the performer and a truly orchestral sound from the piano.