YR3 Week3: Chopin - Nocturnes #1-10; Linda Perhacs



RCA Victor, Printed in Canada // Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) // Nocturnes #1-10 // Pianist: Arthur Rubinstein 

Nocturnes #1-10 

  • Op. 9 #1 (B-Flat min); #2 (E-Flat); #3 (in B)

  • Op.15 #1 (in F); #2 (F-Sharp); #3 (G min)

  • Op. 27 #1 (C-Sharp min); #2 (D-Flat)

  • Op.32 #1 (in B) #2 (A-Flat)

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 in the food, Chopin empties a handful of Cayenne pepper. “” ludwig rellstab

i’m not much familiar with the works of irish composer john field but even the one composition of his that i have in my music library (Nocturne No. 1 in E-Flat Major) testifies to the comparison often made between the character of his nocturnes (a genre he popularized) and that of chopin---who did for nocturnes what beethoven did for string quartets: 

The differences may be thus described: Field’s Nocturnes represent a cheerful blooming landscape, bathed in sunshine, while Chopin’s depict a romantic mountainous region, with a dark background and lowering clouds flashing forth lightning. “” józef sikorski

chopin’s contemporaries often pitched the accusation that he was aping field’s experiments in the genre, but in time better stylistic judgement would come to the realization that chopin, among other things, made the nocturne more nocturnal---reducing the instances of blooming landscapes bathed in sunshine to occasional and brief aberrations of dark and lucid dreamscapes, bringing to it a ‘voluptuous dreaminess and cloying sweetness’ characteristic of much of the first ten of this collection of nocturnes. 

Chopin by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband; instagram @jplewisandsons

Chopin by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband; instagram @jplewisandsons

perhaps it’s that i’ve learned how to listen better---or that a year is a very long time---but there seems to be much more now to these nocturnes than i heard last august: or is it that my new apartment is surrounded by a larger population of cicadas, whose constant electric fry---nature’s vuvuzelas---are a sort of sonic plater amplifying the summerness of these nocturnal delights? 

(is there an instrument more pious than the piano? even in the physiology of the pianist there’s an intuitive posture of litany; the knees-together business and tremendous consciousness of the hands---and the lucid weight of hands as it performs its choreography of gestures---quite the opposite, for example, of the voluptuous openness of the cellist. point being that in the dim and small hours which the nocturne serenades, the instrument achieves a spiritual weight, a sort of secular liturgy of hours. indeed in old english, the word nocturne was used to group together and describe hours of prayer throughout the day.) felt cute, might delete later. 

although expressed in astounding variety, the character of chopin’s nocturnes follow a simple pattern: a twinkling melody in the treble---like the striation of moonlight through half-closed blinds---undergirded by percussive chords in the bass; the combination unfurls in an altogether slurred physique by extensive use of the pedal. robert schumann’s attempt to summarize all of chopin’s works in a witty remark went by way of calling them ‘guns buried in flowers’; these nocturnes are perhaps the best examples of schumann’s quip: the tranquilities are superficial, merely thin veils to wrap the black canons of a restlessly firing mind, whose sensitivity grows the further it wades into the night.

(Opus #9)

chopin’s Opus No.9 is composed of three nocturnes, each about five minutes long: the first of which (Op. 9 #1) is, as described by music critic g.c. ashton jonson, emphatically a mood’, a mood that the soloist should carry in her heavy octaves “as though the soul were sinking beneath the weight of thought and the heat of a summer’s night”. james huneker, american critic of the arts, advises the listener along those same lines: 

it is best heard on a grey day of the soul, when the times are out of joint; it’s silken tones will bring a triste content when they pour out upon one’s hearing. “” james huneker

it is a kind of delicate offering, grand and sincere expression treading softly across the keyboard, bringing to mind one of the first poems i memorized years ago, and have since nearly forgotten of: 

Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths 
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. 
“” w.b. yeats, The Cloths of Heaven

further into g.c. ashton jonson’s book, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works, i came across a section where he describes the style of play that would perfect the second nocturne of the bunch (Op. 9 #2), whereby the soloist must play the left hand with a slow emphasis like rubinstein, but the right in a field-like fashion. jonson describes the structure of the nocturne as follows:

There is a first subject which opens brightly in the major and is contrasted in the middle section with an agitated and dramatic theme in the minor. The chief subject is then resumed, and the whole closes with one of those codas which, in Chopin’s works, are so often separate inspirations of extraordinary beauty and charm. “” g.c. ashton jonson, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works

(Opus #15)

Opus No.15 is as well composed of three nocturnes, the first of which begins as a pleasant slumber shortly thereafter interrupted by the spasms of a frightening dream:

A serene and tender Andante is followed by a stormy theme marked con fuoco, which, after waves and emotion, dies down into the opening theme, and on this occasion is brought to a close without a coda, by two tender arpeggioed chords.“” g.c. ashton jonson, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works

the second item in the trio--and chopin’s fifth nocturne--is an elegiac procession, described by jonson as:

a flawless gem, a true poem, in that it satisfies Milton’s definition of poetry as “simple, sensuous, and passionate.” “” g.c. ashton jonson, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works

the structure and mood of third is more like an etude than a nocturne, a two-part procession described by german musicologist friedrich niecks as follows: 

 the wavering pensiveness of the first portion of the Nocturne, which finds its expression in the indecision of the melodic progression, harmonies, and modulations. The second section is marked religioso, and may be characterised as a trustful prayer, conducive to calm and comfort. “” friedrich niecks

there again is an instance of one of chopin’s nocturnes described as a kind of prayer. indeed that was the lurking and familiar sensation that i felt throughout this week of listening to this compilation, the constant and subconscious contemplative state these works cast the listener as the soloist massages a rosary of notes. those who were perhaps at one time intimately familiar with prayer as a profound form of sleep, an addictive state of being, can never completely forgo the allure of the sensation, the aerobic stimulation of prolonged prayer, even when their instincts have been realigned to experience the most vapid disgust at the sight of any kneeling, praying thing. not only these nocturnes, but the daily upkeep of this blog is, as i mentioned earlier, my form of a secular liturgy of hours...

(Opus #27)

Opus No.27 is composed of two nocturnes, the second of which is one of the most distinctly chopinesque works on solo piano. it is alleged that field once described chopin’s work as ‘sickroom music’---not in regards to the composer’s often failing health, but in regards to lukewarm melancholic light in which much of his discography is set. the second of the duo--reminiscent in melody of the composer’s Consolations No.3---is one such especially strong dose of melancholy, music of the convalescent through and through:

Nothing can be equal the finish and delicacy of execution, the flow of gentle feeling lightly rippled by melancholy, and spreading out here and there in smooth expansiveness. But all this sweetness enervates, there is poison it it. We should not drink in these thirds, sixths, &c., without taking an antidote of Bach or Beethoven. “” friedrich niecks

(Opus #32)

the final set in RCA Victor recording is a pair of nocturnes marked at the composer’s Opus #32. The first of which is a wistful, grazing contemplative that at times floats into a pause: 

A feature throughout this is the way the melody is broken off and interrupted by a sudden pause several times, after which a beautiful cadence leads us to the close of the phrase. The point, however, which lends the greatest interest to this Nocturne is the abrupt introduction of coda, dramatic in form and of powerful energy.  “” g.c. ashton jonson, A Handbook to Chopin’s Works

(new download, #781: Paper Mountain Man - Linda Perhacs)

american psychedelic folk singer linda perhacs is in a very niche troop of folk musicians who made one absolutely groundbreaking album in the 60’s and 70’s and then fucked off for three decades---to be unearthed by corporate-hipsters in the mid 2000’s (myself booming with the worst). you’ll also find on that same niche list: the pastorally picturesque sceneries strummed by british folkers vashti bunyan (Just Another Diamond Day) and the devastating beauty and haunting softboi-poetry of german-turn-american artist sibylle baier (Colour Green). i was first introduced to the existence of perhacs’ album Parallelogram last september by a local harpist i met at the Tranzac---yet another instance of my belief that no music recommendation should ever be put to waste, no matter how long it takes to get to it. i’m at the moment hooked on the second song on that album, Paper Mountain Man, with its infectious rhythm---a sort of jingle-jangle bebop in the style of jeanne moreau’s Quelle histoire---that floats the images painted by each line of the lyrics, not to mention that loaded and murderously singable chorus: 

You've been called ahead
You've been called to bed
You've been called be-damned
But we'll shake your hand
You're like a paper mountain man