Narrative Development in Chopin’s Nocturnes

David Rowland, in his essay, “The Nocturne: Development of a New Style,” (The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, 1992) argues that Chopin took an established “nocturne style” and developed it in new ways. Much of Rowland’s essay focuses on establishing the particular nocturne style, developed by John Field and others, that Chopin inherited. This style was characterized by a relatively simple form (ABA or ABAB), with the left hand playing broken chords, and the right hand utilizing simple ornamentation. (Rowland, 43)

But Rowland, at the conclusion of his essay, also mentions some new developments that Chopin made to the genre. Rather than the typically straightforward ABA or ABAB forms of the earlier nocturnes, in the later ones “there is a sense of development, or progression through the work…. Op. 48 No. 1 is a good example. The return of the opening melodic idea towards the end of the piece is accompanied by much richer figuration and is marked agitato. As a result, there is a drama in this final section which is entirely lacking at the beginning of the piece.” (Ibid., 48)

The following analysis will examine some of the particular musical characteristics Chopin used to effect this heightened drama. To understand how this later nocturne departed from Chopin’s earlier formal approaches, I will first compare it with a nocturne that was composed ten years earlier, Op. 15 No. 1 in F major. (Download the C minor score here, the F major score here.)

The nocturnes are both cast in the typical ABA form, with a clearly projected homophonic texture in the A section, and a contrasting texture in the B section. In the F major nocturne, the A section features the nocturne texture that Chopin used so well: a vocal-like melody in the right hand with the standard nocturne accompaniment of broken chords in the left (Example 1). The C minor nocturne features the same vocal-like melody but with a slow “oom-pah” accompaniment in the left (Example 2). Both nocturnes also have a B section that adds drama to the piece. It explodes right from the start in the F major nocturne, clearly marking for the listener that new territory has been reached. In the C minor nocturne, the boundaries are more fluid, and the dramatic intensity gathers gradually.

The F minor nocturne had begun delicately and simply in the A section, with semplice e tranquillo, dolcissimo, and delicatissimo markings. Out of this peaceful mood breaks the furious  con fuoco section (m. 25), which holds forth in all its turbulent glory unceasingly for the next 24 measures until it finally peters out and leads, calando, back to the A section material. It is a true return, with the left-hand accompaniment lifted directly from the beginning section. The right-hand melody is also the same, with added ornamentation.

The phrase structure also returns almost whole, the only difference being that what was an open phrase in m. 24—the one which led into the B section—now receives a proper closure in the final four measures of the piece. In other words, the story of this piece is that it begins in one place, moves to another, and then returns right back to the place where it started—your basic there and back again. If this piece were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Pure action
  • Act 3—Repeat Act 1

In other words, it is no drama at all, but rather more akin to a da capo aria form. An aria provides a momentary tableau within a larger story, and is not expected to contain a complete dramatic span. Neither is this nocturne.

The later nocturne in C minor, on the other hand, follows a more linear progression, creating a drama that begins, develops, and ends somewhere new. Instead of having alternating sections with no formal, stylistic or rhythmic bleed, as in the F major nocturne, the musical forces introduced in the B section (mm. 25-48) affect the restatement of the A section at the end of the piece (mm. 49-77). On a structural level, this is most keenly felt in the development of rhythmic pulse throughout the piece. In the A section, the rhythmic streams break down into groups of two and four, with the two highest levels of subdivision being eighth notes and sixteenth notes (all in duple groupings). The B section maintains this stream throughout the entire first statement of the chorale (mm. 25-36). The restatement of the chorale melody soon meets with a cross-cutting force (m. 39), a rising chromatic figure that obliterates melodic and rhythmic flow by introducing a new rhythmic stream: sixteenth notes grouped as triplets. The chorale tries several times to go on to completion, each time only to be interrupted yet again, until the rambunctious triplet stream eventually takes over completely by m. 46.

All hope of a “there and back again” form is not yet lost. Like the F minor nocturne, this tempestuous contrasting section may still peter out into a restatement of the A section just as it was in the beginning of the piece. But it is not to be. Instead, the new triplet stream introduced in the B section carries over into the restatement of the A section, beginning in m. 49. Like a locomotive, the momentum of the chromatic triplet motive has gathered to such a point that it would take a major opposing force to counteract it. Chopin provided no such force, and following section gives in to the inertia. This results in two opposing streams occurring side by side—one dividing the beat into four sixteenth notes, one dividing it into eighth-note triplets. It is a typical hemiola effect, with the undergirding of an extraordinary formal rationale.

The transformation of the A section material is the result of the developmental nature of the B section. Recall the B section of Op. 15 No. 1. The fiery nature of that section was consistent from beginning to end, bookended by two relatively calm sections. The B section of Op. 48 No. 1, on the other hand, builds gradually, constantly adding both in dynamic level and rhythmic intensity. The difference between these two story-lines can be graphically represented—though roughly—by a series of bars, where an increase in the height of the bar reflects an increase in inertia (increase in inertia in this case results from an increase of various musical elements such as dynamic level, rhythmic interest, and range).

In other words, if the C minor nocturne were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Gradual and building action, leading to a climax
  • Act 3—Concluding act that continues climax, resolves conflict, shows character development

This story-line fits much better into the mold of a drama than the F major nocturne. As a result, David Rowland’s observation about drama in Op. 48 No. 1, stated above, can be expanded. This piece not only has drama, it seems appropriate to talk about the piece as a drama.

The fusion of these two contrasting rhythmic streams in the A’ section has many ramifications, including grandiose figuration, rhythmic tension, and an increasingly dense texture. Grandiose figuration occurs in both the left and right hands, where the eighth-note triplet has become the basic pulse for the accompaniment. This underlying pulse creates rhythmic tension with the melody, because the latter retains the subdivision into groups of four sixteenth notes from its initial statement. The result is a recurring four against three rhythm (see mm. 54, 55, 58, 59, 66, 68, and 69-70). Also, the texture of this final section, although consistent on a wallpaper level, changes subtly by adding density. In mm. 49-62, the left hand has only two notes in a chord at a time (with a lone exception in m. 51). But in m. 65, at the beginning of a new phrase, a third note is added to the successive chordal inversions in the left hand, making an already dense texture even more so. This continues until m. 71, the start of the final cadence of the piece. From this point on, there is a denouement, gradually reducing the density of the texture to the end of the piece.

What a difference the accumulation of one new element can make. It is representative of a subtle shift in Chopin’s approach to the nocturne, one in which formal sections are not hermetically sealed but have the ability to influence one another. And although this nocturne may have been the first to reflect linear progression on such a scale, it was not the last. The A’ section of the other nocturne in Op. 48 (No. 2 in F# minor) also undergoes a transformation, though not primarily through rhythmic developments. In No. 2 it is the melodic, harmonic, and phrase structure that differs from the first A to the last—the very elements that are retained in the second statement of the opening C minor theme. But by either compositional technique, Op. 48 represents a departure from the prevailing da capo form in Chopin’s nocturne style, towards nocturnes that were through composed.


Pathos and Playfulness in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto, composed for a subscription concert in 1786, illustrates to stunning effect the composer’s characteristically mercurial sensibilities. Never did he dance more gracefully between the poles of elegant balance and impish amusement, on the one side, and Sturm und Drang dejection and psychological torment on the other. Indeed, affective contrast in central to this work; because the first and last movements are so indefatigably upbeat and buoyant, the wounded core of the concerto, the andante, bleeds all the more red. In this post, I will explore certain aspects of the musical language that Mozart employs in this slow movement to deliver its sublime chill. Moreover, since it’s problematic to address music as a text without referencing its sounding presence, I will briefly examine two recorded performances of the movement, one by Friedrich Gulda on a modern piano and one by Robert Levin on the fortepiano. (Recordings embedded below)

In the rare key of F# minor, the andante employs a range of affective techniques all gesturing towards a universe of sorrow. We begin with an 11-bar piano solo passage that, while starting out with a stable iteration of the tonic, quickly veers into the unexpected. Indeed, the passage is unusual for its wide leaps of strange intervals, a feature particularly evident in m. 2, when we plummet from a G#5 down to an E#2 before stabilizing at B4. There is a sense of profound disjuncture to this wildly vacillating movement between far-flung registers, an effect that is exacerbated by the rupture of the trochee rhythmic pattern established in the first measure. (We’ll return to this opening later.) We thus have a dual breakdown: our tightly-bounded melodic figure lurches unexpectedly into a diminished triad spelled out one note at a time across the range of the instrument, and our rhythmic periodicity is aborted to lend this dramatic gesture additional support. In m. 3, a level of normalcy is asserted once again, as the trochee returns to provide stability to the remainder of the opening. This technique – establishing a framework of normalcy, breaking the rules in a moment of expressive paroxysm, then returning to normal – is not unique to this opening solo. When the orchestra enters in m. 12, it isn’t long before we encounter another rip in the seam of our expectations.

To my ears, the tragic masterstroke of the exposition comes in measures 16-18 (and in the various recapitulations) with a harmonic gesture that exemplifies Mozart’s superlative command over the hermeneutics of despair. We begin (like the opening solo) with a pattern establishing a norm, in this case a grounded harmonic progression that rises from the tonic in m. 12 up the five degrees of the scale to rest on the V7 – cadence position – in m. 16. Unlike the opening (m. 4), where the dominant is sustained through a full measure, however, Mozart jumps the gun here: the tonic arrives on the weak part of the beat. This fleeting rhythmic dissonance is given further destabilizing weight as the ensemble enters subito forte on the tonic to drive home the surprise. Shocking as this disruptive anticipation might be, however, it’s only a harbinger for the wrenching harmonic contortions that follow. In m.17, the basses plunge to C natural, a tritone down from the tonic, and we move into a series of chromatically descending parallel diminished chords. This motion is essentially an unusual reharmonization of the first two bars of the exposition – indeed, the melody in the violins remains the same, although displaced an octave – but more than simply an unorthodox musical procedure, the discombobulating swerve is psychologically potent. Just after sinking through two consecutive diminished chords, when abjection appears complete, we are struck with one more searing diminished harmony on A#. This moment is yet another betrayal of expectations: in the first half of the phrase (m. 14), the melody is harmonized with the tonic in second inversion, but in the second iteration we’re faced with something altogether different. The collapse of expectations is total when the satisfaction of the anticipated tonic is yanked away at the last second for yet another bitter diminished chord, which appears as a tragic fait accompli. After hitting this extreme harmony (Taruskin might call it the FOP, or “far-out-point”), the composer quickly unwinds his position to cadence in time for another piano solo. The process of norm-subversion-norm is complete: unfurling into dark nether regions of the key in a twisted, unpredictable spiral, then pulling himself together for a textbook authentic cadence, Mozart shows us the depth of his control over affect.

Of course, every performance will communicate the pathos of this movement on different terms. I am accustomed to hearing the Mozart concertos played on modern pianos, with their heroic fortissimos, long sustain, and richness of sound. Recently, however, I’ve been drawn to the Christopher Hogwood period instrument recordings with Robert Levin on the fortepiano. At first, the fortepiano struck me as a clumsy substitute for the modern instrument; it decays quickly, lacks the dynamic range, and has a quirky, uneven tone throughout its register. To put it honestly, I despised these recording when I first heard them. The frailty of the instrument simply didn’t seem up to the task of the material (ironic, considering they were all written for the fortepiano) and many passages – especially those involving the lower register at a loud dynamic – sounded almost vaudevillian at times, with rattling, sharp bass notes that conjured images of darting-eyed silent film villains.

Andante (R. Levin – Fortepiano)

In movements such as this andante, however, the structural inferiorities of the fortepiano actually enhance the affective dimensions of the music. Indeed, the very frailty and unevenness of the instrument’s sound serve to highlight the despondent vulnerability of the musical narrative, contributing an additional layer of poignancy to an already taut representation of Weltschmerz. What initially struck me as the distracting imperfections of an inferior, antique instrument have become, through repeated listening, essential interpretative components of the piece itself. Friedrich Gulda’s recording of the work with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, while flawlessly executed, loses some of the movement’s quality of human weakness as a result of its very perfection. The fortepiano, with all of its inherent flaws (to the modern ear, that is), is perhaps better suited, in my opinion, to the subterranean realms explored here. Its sound is a beautiful ugliness.

Andante (F. Gulda – Piano)

To illustrate the difference between piano and fortepiano in this movement, we need look no further than the opening solo. As previously mentioned, part of the rhetorical power of this passage comes in its near-complete (but brief) breakdown of rhetoric in the service of naturalistic expression. When performed on the piano, the sound of each staggered pitch in m. 2 gently bleeds into the next, and the diminished triad materializes out of the mists. Even without the sustain pedal, pianos reverberate differently than their ancestor instruments. But on the fortepiano, this same gesture appears as a distorted, pointillistic helter-skelter of unpredictable sound-dots. The three consecutive notes of the diminished triad are properly contextualized when supported by the superior acoustic projection of the piano; the early instrument, weak in its tonal support and absent in sustain, on the other hand, present these three notes nakedly. They almost sound like mistakes, which in this context is wildly effective. The breakdown of this opening norm is, I think, more pronounced and heartbreaking when rendered on an instrument that equals the affective gesture in abject frailty.

Aside from the choice of instrument used in any recording of the work, one of the major performance practice questions for this and all of Mozart’s concertos (and similar music from that era) has to do with the issue of embellishment and improvisation. Again, on this count, the Gulda and Levin recordings differ profoundly. Gulda sticks quite close to the script, offering occasional embellishments but never venturing into outright improvisation. The repeated sections of the movement’s ternary form are interpreted with exactitude, amounting to the same thing with each repetition. His is a stark and stripped down but ultimately breathtaking interpretation, to be sure. Levin’s recording, on the other hand, takes a number of considerable risks, especially in this day and age when classical performers often shy away from improvisation (or rather, run screaming from it). After the opening, which Levin interprets literally, every other extended passage is embellished to such a florid extent that at times it comes close to pure improvisation. This approach is not without its naysayers, of course, and the pianist makes an explicit point to address these fears in his liner notes, indicating that he would never hope to top what Mozart has written. Rather, improvising so freely throughout is meant to lend a sense of spontaneity to the performance; like a great jazz musician, Levin delights in the radical temporality of the craft. As in any improvised performance, the music on this recording will never be performed the same way ever again.

Listening to the role of improvisation in these two recordings, I’m struck once again by the profound role performer choices make in the delineation of a (composed) musical idea. In different ways, both performances are “authentic”: Gulda follows Mozart’s indications, while Levin engages in a practice that was widespread during the composer’s time (Mozart himself greatly excelled at it, in fact). Both recordings, therefore, are beautiful and truthful in their own ways. However, like the imperfections of the fortepiano’s sound, I find that Levin’s improvisatory flights add profoundly to the dramatic – and indeed, contrastive – character of the music. Improvisation is an art of finitude; it is fleeting, unbounded, and ultimately uncontrollable (at least in the extent that written notes represent “controlled” sounds). The once-in-an-eternity element of Levin’s figures thus signals the transitoriness of the unfolding music, its susceptibility to decay and loss. This interpretation is fitting to the tragic nature of the movement. However, improvisation is also a celebratory embrace of the present moment. As a practice, it stands smiling astride passing time, reveling in each dying second. In this sense, Levin gestures toward the redemptive edification latent in the tragic movement. Thus, through improvisation, Levin boosts the level of both pathos and playfulness.