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.
Chopin’s contemporaries were familiar with poetic ballades and vocal ballades that spoke of fateful events of circumstances preceding them. These ballades were in fashion in the era of Romanticism, but Chopin was the first to call his instrumental works thus. He was very distant from copying the strophic form of vocal ballades, creating instead something concentrated and close in form to the sonata. It is believed that his four ballades for piano were inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s Świtezianka – the story of a mermaid who ruins a young man. Chopin himself never officially confirmed it, but almost every one of his ballades was composed in the rhythm of a barcarolle, imitating the endless movement of the waves.
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.
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.