Night and Its Melancholy Mysteries


The Nocturnes of Chopin

By James Huneker.

Here is the chronology of the nocturnes: Op. 9, three nocturnes, January, 1833; op. 15, three nocturnes, January, 1834; op. 27, two nocturnes, May, 1836; op. 32, two nocturnes, December, 1837; op. 37, two nocturnes, May, 1840; op. 48, two nocturnes, November, 1841; op. 55, two nocturnes, August, 1844; op. 62, two nocturnes, September, 1846. In addition there is a nocturne written in 1828 and published by Fontana, with the opus number 72, No. 2, and the lately discovered one in C sharp minor, written when Chopin was young and published in 1895. This completes the nocturne list, but following Niecks’ system of formal grouping I include the Berceuse and Barcarolle as full fledged specimens of nocturnes.

John Field has been described as the forerunner of Chopin. The limpid style of this pupil and friend of Clementi, his beautiful touch and finished execution, were certainly admired and imitated by the Pole. Field’s nocturnes are now neglected—so curious are Time’s caprices—and without warrant, for not only is Field the creator of the form, but in both his concertos and nocturnes he has written charming, sweet and sane music. He rather patronized Chopin, for whose melancholy pose he had no patience. “He has a talent of the hospital,” growled Field in the intervals between his wine drinking, pipe smoking and the washing of his linen—the latter economical habit he contracted from Clementi. There is some truth in his stricture. Chopin, seldom exuberantly cheerful, is morbidly sad and complaining in many of the nocturnes. The most admired of his compositions, with the exception of the valses, they are in several instances his weakest. Yet he ennobled the form originated by Field, giving it dramatic breadth, passion and even grandeur. Set against Field’s naive and idyllic specimens, Chopin’s efforts are often too bejewelled for true simplicity, too lugubrious, too tropical—Asiatic is a better word—and they have the exotic savor of the heated conservatory, and not the fresh scent of the flowers reared in the open by the less poetic Irishman. And, then, Chopin is so desperately sentimental in some of these compositions. They are not altogether to the taste of this generation; they seem to be suffering from anaemia. However, there are a few noble nocturnes; and methods of performance may have much to answer for the sentimentalizing of some others. More vigor, a quickening of the time-pulse, and a less languishing touch will rescue them from lush sentiment. Chopin loved the night and its soft mysteries as much as did Robert Louis Stevenson, and his nocturnes are true night pieces, some with agitated, remorseful countenance, others seen in profile only, while many are whisperings at dusk. Most of them are called feminine, a term psychologically false. The poetic side of men of genius is feminine, and in Chopin the feminine note was over emphasized—at times it was almost hysterical—particularly in these nocturnes.

The Scotch have a proverb: “She wove her shroud, and wore it in her lifetime.” In the nocturnes the shroud is not far away.  Chopin wove his to the day of his death, and he wore it sometimes but not always, as many think.

One of the most elegiac of his nocturnes is the first in B flat minor. It is one of three, op. 9, dedicated to Mme. Camille Pleyel. Of far more significance than its two companions, it is, for some reason, neglected. While I am far from agreeing with those who hold that in the early Chopin all his genius was completely revealed, yet this nocturne is as striking as the last, for it is at once sensuous and dramatic, melancholy and lovely. Emphatically a mood, it is best heard on a gray day of the soul, when the times are out of joint; its silken tones will bring a triste content as they pour out upon one’s hearing. The second section in octaves is of exceeding charm. As a melody it has all the lurking voluptuousness and mystic crooning of its composer. There is flux and reflux throughout, passion peeping out in the coda.

The E flat nocturne is graceful, shallow of content, but if it is played with purity of touch and freedom from sentimentality it is not nearly so banal as it usually seems. It is Field-like, therefore play it as did Rubinstein, in a Field-like fashion.

Hadow calls attention to the “remote and recondite modulations” in the twelfth bar, the chromatic double notes. For him they only are one real modulation, “the rest of the passage is an iridescent play of color, an effect of superficies, not an effect of substance.” It was the E flat nocturne that unloosed Rellstab’s critical wrath in the “Iris.” Of it he wrote: “Where Field smiles, Chopin makes a grinning grimace; where Field sighs, Chopin groans; where Field shrugs his shoulders, Chopin twists his whole body; where Field puts some seasoning into the food, Chopin empties a handful of cayenne pepper. In short, if one holds Field’s charming romances before a distorting, concave mirror, so that every delicate impression becomes a coarse one, one gets Chopin’s work. We implore Mr. Chopin to return to nature.”

Rellstab might have added that while Field was often commonplace, Chopin never was. Rather is to be preferred the sound judgment of J. W. Davison, the English critic and husband of the pianist, Arabella Goddard. Of the early works he wrote:

Commonplace is instinctively avoided in all the works of Chopin—a stale cadence or a trite progression—a hum-drum subject or a worn-out passage—a vulgar twist of the melody or a hackneyed sequence—a meagre harmony or an unskilful counterpoint—may in vain be looked for throughout the entire range of his compositions, the prevailing characteristics of which are a feeling as uncommon as beautiful; a treatment as original as felicitous; a melody and a harmony as new, fresh, vigorous and striking as they are utterly unexpected and out of the original track. In taking up one of the works of Chopin you are entering, as it were, a fairyland untrodden by human footsteps—a path hitherto unfrequented but by the great composer himself.

Gracious, even coquettish, is the first part of the B major Nocturne of this opus. Well knit, the passionate intermezzo has the true dramatic Chopin ring. It should be taken alla breve. The ending is quite effective.

I do not care much for the F major Nocturne, op. 15, No. I. The opus is dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller. Ehlert speaks of “the ornament in triplets with which he brushes the theme as with the gentle wings of a butterfly,” and then discusses the artistic value of the ornament which may be so profitably studied in the Chopin music. “From its nature, the ornament can only beautify the beautiful.” Music like Chopin’s, “with its predominating elegance, could not forego ornament. But he surely did not purchase it of a jeweller; he designed it himself, with a delicate hand. He was the first to surround a note with diamond facets and to weave the rushing floods of his emotions with the silver beams of the moonlight. In his nocturnes there is a glimmering as of distant stars. From these dreamy, heavenly gems he has borrowed many a line. The Chopin nocturne is a dramatized ornament. And why may not Art speak for once in such symbols? In the much admired F sharp major Nocturne the principal theme makes its appearance so richly decorated that one cannot avoid imagining that his fancy confined itself to the Arabesque form for the expression of its poetical sentiments. Even the middle part borders upon what I should call the tragic style of ornament. The ground thought is hidden behind a dense veil, but a veil, too, can be an ornament.”

In another place Ehlert thinks that the F sharp major Nocturne seems inseparable from champagne and truffles. It is certainly more elegant and dramatic than the one in F major, which precedes it.  That, with the exception of the middle part in F minor, is weak, although rather pretty and confiding. The F sharp Nocturne is popular. The “doppio movemento” is extremely striking and the entire piece is saturated with young life, love and feelings of good will to men. Read Kleczynski. The third nocturne of the three is in G minor, and contains some fine, picturesque writing. Kullak does not find in it aught of the fantastic. The languid, earth-weary voice of the opening and the churchly refrain of the chorale, is not this fantastic contrast! This nocturne contains in solution all that Chopin developed later in a nocturne of the same key. But I think the first stronger—its lines are simpler, more primitive, its coloring less complicated, yet quite as rich and gloomy. Of it Chopin said: “After Hamlet,” but changed his mind.  “Let them guess for themselves,” was his sensible conclusion.  Kullak’s programme has a conventional ring. It is the lament for the beloved one, the lost Lenore, with the consolation of religion thrown in. The “bell-tones” of the plain chant bring to my mind little that consoles, although the piece ends in the major mode. It is like Foe’s “Ulalume.” A complete and tiny tone poem, Rubinstein made much of it. In the fourth bar and for three bars there is a held note F, and I heard the Russian virtuoso, by some miraculous means, keep this tone prolonged. The tempo is abnormally slow, and the tone is not in a position where the sustaining pedal can sensibly help it. Yet under Rubinstein’s fingers it swelled and diminished, and went singing into D, as if the instrument were an organ. I suspected the inaudible changing of fingers on the note or a sustaining pedal. It was wonderfully done.

The next nocturne, op. 27, No. I, brings us before a masterpiece.  With the possible exception of the C minor Nocturne, this one in the sombre key of C sharp minor is the great essay in the form.  Kleczynski finds it “a description of a calm night at Venice, where, after a scene of murder, the sea closes over a corpse and continues to serve as a mirror to the moonlight.” This is melodramatic. Willeby analyzes it at length with the scholarly fervor of an English organist. He finds the accompaniment to be “mostly on a double pedal,” and remarks that “higher art than this one could not have if simplicity of means be a factor of high art.” The wide-meshed figure of the left hand supports a morbid, persistent melody that grates on the nerves. From the piu mosso the agitation increases, and here let me call to your notice the Beethoven-ish quality of these bars, which continue until the change of signature. There is a surprising climax followed by sunshine and favor in the D flat part, then after mounting dissonances a bold succession of octaves returns to the feverish plaint of the opening. Kullak speaks of a resemblance to Meyerbeer’s song, Le Moine. The composition reaches exalted states. Its psychological tension is so great at times as to border on a pathological condition. There is unhealthy power in this nocturne, which is seldom interpreted with sinister subtlety. Henry T. Finck rightfully thinks it “embodies a greater variety of emotion and more genuine dramatic spirit on four pages than many operas on four hundred.”

The companion picture in D flat, op. 27, No. 2, has, as Karasowski writes, “a profusion of delicate fioriture.” It really contains but one subject, and is a song of the sweet summer of two souls, for there is obvious meaning in the duality of voices.  Often heard in the concert room, this nocturne gives us a surfeit of sixths and thirds of elaborate ornamentation and monotone of mood. Yet it is a lovely, imploring melody, and harmonically most interesting. A curious marking, and usually overlooked by pianists, is the crescendo and con forza of the cadenza. This is obviously erroneous. The theme, which occurs three times, should first be piano, then pianissimo, and lastly forte. This opus is dedicated to the Comtesse d’Appony.

The best part of the next nocturne,--B major, op. 32, No. I, dedicated to Madame de Billing—is the coda. It is in the minor and is like the drum-beat of tragedy. The entire ending, a stormy recitative, is in stern contrast to the dreamy beginning. Kullak in the first bar of the last line uses a G; Fontana, F sharp, and Klindworth the same as Kullak. The nocturne that follows in A flat is a reversion to the Field type, the opening recalling that master’s B flat Nocturne. The F minor section of Chopin’s broadens out to dramatic reaches, but as an entirety this opus is a little tiresome. Nor do I admire inordinately the Nocturne in G minor, op. 37, No. 1. It has a complaining tone, and the choral is not noteworthy. This particular part, so Chopin’s pupil Gutmann declared, is taken too slowly, the composer having forgotten to mark the increased tempo. But the Nocturne in G, op.  37, No. 2, is charming. Painted with Chopin’s most ethereal brush, without the cloying splendors of the one in D flat, the double sixths, fourths and thirds are magically euphonious. The second subject, I agree with Karasowski, is the most beautiful melody Chopin ever wrote. It is in true barcarolle vein; and most subtle are the shifting harmonic hues. Pianists usually take the first part too fast, the second too slowly, transforming this poetic composition into an etude. As Schumann wrote of this opus:

“The two nocturnes differ from his earlier ones chiefly through greater simplicity of decoration and more quiet grace. We know Chopin’s fondness in general for spangles, gold trinkets and pearls. He has already changed and grown older; decoration he still loves, but it is of a more judicious kind, behind which the nobility of the poetry shimmers through with all the more loveliness: indeed, taste, the finest, must be granted him.”

Both numbers of this opus are without dedication. They are the offspring of the trip to Majorca.

Niecks, writing of the G major Nocturne, adjures us “not to tarry too long in the treacherous atmosphere of this Capua—it bewitches and unmans.” Kleczynski calls the one in G minor “homesickness,” while the celebrated Nocturne in C minor “is the tale of a still greater grief told in an agitated recitando; celestial harps”—ah! I hear the squeak of the old romantic machinery—“come to bring one ray of hope, which is powerless in its endeavor to calm the wounded soul, which...sends forth to heaven a cry of deepest anguish.” It doubtless has its despairing movement, this same Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, No. I, but Karasowski is nearer right when he calls it “broad and most imposing with its powerful intermediate movement, a thorough departure from the nocturne style.” Willeby finds it “sickly and labored,” and even Niecks does not think it should occupy a foremost place among its companions. The ineluctable fact remains that this is the noblest nocturne of them all. Biggest in conception it seems a miniature music drama. It requires the grand manner to read it adequately, and the doppio movemento is exciting to a dramatic degree. I fully agree with Kullak that too strict adherence to the marking of this section produces the effect of an “inartistic precipitation” which robs the movement of clarity. Kleczynski calls the work The Contrition of a Sinner and devotes several pages to its elucidation. De Lenz chats most entertainingly with Tausig about it. Indeed, an imposing march of splendor is the second subject in C. A fitting pendant is this work to the C sharp minor Nocturne. Both have the heroic quality, both are free from mawkishness and are of the greater Chopin, the Chopin of the mode masculine.

Niecks makes a valuable suggestion: “In playing these nocturnes— op. 48--there occurred to me a remark of Schumann’s, when he reviewed some nocturnes by Count Wielhorski. He said that the quick middle movements which Chopin frequently introduced into his nocturnes are often weaker than his first conceptions; meaning the first portions of his nocturnes. Now, although the middle part in the present instances are, on the contrary, slower movements, yet the judgment holds good; at least with respect to the first nocturne, the middle part of which has nothing to recommend it but a full, sonorous instrumentation, if I may use this word in speaking of one instrument. The middle part of the second—D flat, molto piu lento—however, is much finer; in it we meet again, as we did in some other nocturnes, with soothing, simple chord progressions. When Gutmann studied the C sharp minor Nocturne with Chopin, the master told him that the middle section--the molto piu lento in D flat major—should be played as a recitative. ‘A tyrant commands’—the first two chords—he said, ‘and the other asks for mercy.’”

Of course Niecks means the F sharp minor, not the C sharp minor Nocturne, op. 48, No. 2, dedicated, with the C minor, to Mlle. L.  Duperre.

Opus 55, two nocturnes in F minor and E flat major, need not detain us long. The first is familiar. Kleczynski devotes a page or more to its execution. He seeks to vary the return of the chief subject with nuances—as would an artistic singer the couplets of a classic song. There are “cries of despair” in it, but at last a “feeling of hope.” Kullak writes of the last measures: “Thank God—the goal is reached!” It is the relief of a major key after prolonged wanderings in the minor. It is a nice nocturne, neat in its sorrow, yet not epoch-making. The one following has “the impression of an improvisation.” It has also the merit of being seldom heard. These two nocturnes are dedicated to Mlle. J. W. Stirling.

Opus 62 brings us to a pair in B major and E major inscribed to Madame de Konneritz. The first, the Tuberose Nocturne, is faint with a sick, rich odor. The climbing trellis of notes, that so unexpectedly leads to the tonic, is charming and the chief tune has charm, a fruity charm. It is highly ornate, its harmonies dense, the entire surface overrun with wild ornamentation and a profusion of trills. The piece—the third of its sort in the key of B—is not easy.

Although this nocturne is luxuriant in style, it deserves warmer praise than is accorded it. Irregular as its outline is, its troubled lyrism is appealing, is melting, and the A flat portion, with its hesitating, timid accents, has great power of attraction. The E major Nocturne has a bardic ring. Its song is almost declamatory and not at all sentimental—unless so distorted—as Niecks would have us imagine. The intermediate portion is wavering and passionate, like the middle of the F sharp major Nocturne. It shows no decrease in creative vigor or lyrical fancy.

The posthumous nocturne in E minor, composed in 1827, is weak and uninteresting. Moreover, it contains some very un-Chopin-like modulations. The recently discovered nocturne in C sharp minor is hardly a treasure trove. It is vague and reminiscent The following note was issued by its London publishers, Ascherberg & Co.:

The first question, suggested by the announcement of a new posthumous composition of Chopin’s, will be “What proof is there of its authenticity?” To musicians and amateurs who cannot recognize the beautiful Nocturne in C sharp minor as indeed the work of Chopin, it may in the first place be pointed out that the original manuscript (of which a facsimile is given on the title-page) is in Chopin’s well-known handwriting, and, secondly, that the composition, which is strikingly characteristic, was at once accepted as the work of Chopin by the distinguished composer and pianist Balakireff, who played it for the first time in public at the Chopin Commemoration Concert, held in the autumn of 1894 at Zelazowa Wola, and afterward at Warsaw. This nocturne was addressed by Chopin to his sister Louise, at Warsaw, in a letter from Paris, and was written soon after the production of the two lovely piano concertos, when Chopin was still a very young man. It contains a quotation from his most admired Concerto in F minor, and a brief reference to the charming song known as the Maiden’s Wish, two of his sister’s favorite melodies. The manuscript of the nocturne was supposed to have been destroyed in the sacking of the Zamojski Palace, at Warsaw, toward the end of the insurrection of 1863, but it was discovered quite recently among papers of various kinds in the possession of a Polish gentleman, a great collector, whose son offered Mr.  Polinski the privilege of selecting from such papers. His choice was three manuscripts of Chopin’s, one of them being this nocturne. A letter from Mr. Polinski on the subject of this nocturne is in the possession of Miss Janotha.

Is this the nocturne of which Tausig spoke to his pupil Joseffy as belonging to the Master’s “best period,” or did he refer to the one in E minor?

The Berceuse, op. 57, published June, 1845, and dedicated to Mlle. Elise Gavard, is the very sophistication of the art of musical ornamentation. It is built on a tonic and dominant bass— the triad of the tonic and the chord of the dominant seventh. A rocking theme is set over this basso ostinato and the most enchanting effects are produced. The rhythm never alters in the bass, and against this background, the monotone of a dark, gray sky, the composer arranges an astonishing variety of fireworks, some florid, some subdued, but all delicate in tracery and design. Modulations from pigeon egg blue to Nile green, most misty and subtle modulations, dissolve before one’s eyes, and for a moment the sky is peppered with tiny stars in doubles, each independently tinted. Within a small segment of the chromatic bow Chopin has imprisoned new, strangely dissonant colors. It is a miracle; and after the drawn-out chord of the dominant seventh and the rain of silvery fire ceases one realizes that the whole piece is a delicious illusion, but an ululation in the key of D flat, the apotheosis of pyrotechnical colorature.

The Barcarolle, op. 60, published September, 1846, is another highly elaborated work.  Niecks must be quoted here: “One day Tausig, the great piano virtuoso, promised W. de Lenz to play him Chopin’s Barcarolle, adding, ‘That is a performance which must not be undertaken before more than two persons. I shall play you my own self. I love the piece, but take it rarely.’ Lenz got the music, but it did not please him—it seemed to him a long movement in the nocturne style, a Babel of figuration on a lightly laid foundation. But he found that he had made a mistake, and, after hearing it played by Tausig, confessed that the virtuoso had infused into the ‘nine pages of enervating music, of one and the same long-breathed rhythm, so much interest, so much motion, so much action,’ that he regretted the long piece was not longer.”

Tausig’s conception of the barcarolle was this: “There are two persons concerned in the affair; it is a love scene in a discrete gondola; let us say this mise-en-scene is the symbol of a lover’s meeting generally.”

“This is expressed in thirds and sixths; the dualism of two notes—persons—is maintained throughout; all is two-voiced, two-souled. In this modulation in C sharp major—superscribed dolce sfogato—there are kiss and embrace! This is evident! When, after three bars of introduction, the theme, ‘lightly rocking in the bass solo,’ enters in the fourth, this theme is nevertheless made use of throughout the whole fabric only as an accompaniment, and ON this the cantilena in two parts is laid; we have thus a continuous, tender dialogue.”

The Barcarolle is a nocturne painted on a large canvas, with larger brushes. It has Italian color in spots—Schumann said that, melodically, Chopin sometimes “leans over Germany into Italy”—and is a masterly one in sentiment, pulsating with amorousness. To me it sounds like a lament for the splendors, now vanished, of Venice the Queen. In bars 8, 9, and 10, counting backward, Louis Ehlert finds obscurities in the middle voices. It is dedicated to the Baronne de Stockhausen.

The nocturnes—including the Berceuse and Barcarolle—should seldom be played in public and not the public of a large hall.  Something of Chopin’s delicate, tender warmth and spiritual voice is lost in larger spaces. In a small auditorium, and from the fingers of a sympathetic pianist, the nocturnes should be heard, that their intimate, night side may be revealed. Many are like the music en sourdine of Paul Verlaine in his “Chanson D’Automne” or “Le Piano que Baise une Main Frele.” They are essentially for the twilight, for solitary enclosures, where their still, mysterious tones—“silent thunder in the leaves” as Yeats sings— become eloquent and disclose the poetry and pain of their creator.



 

 

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