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Whereas Bach was the magnificent culmination of the Baroque period, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) landed very near the beginning of the century-long Romantic period, anointed to shed a golden glow on an era that arguably began with late Beethoven, or with Carl Maria von Weber, regarded as the founder of German Romantic opera, take your pick. Just as the elegant and tasteful Classical tradition crowned by Haydn and Mozart arose in opposition to what were considered the excesses of the Baroque, so the early Romantics (Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Berlioz) argued against the cool objectivity of their predecessors by championing the expression of the self in all of its myriad shapes and forms. In fostering subjectivity, the Romantics explored new harmonic realms and tonal relationships, and in speaking directly from the heart they had to devise new forms in which to contain these highly individual creative messages. In the realm of piano music, impetuous and/or soulful confessions were often epigrammatic, small moments of emotion, mood, and poetic imagery - character pieces, as they’re called.
All of the early Romantics were purveyors of the character piece or the piano miniature. In this area Chopin had no peers. Indeed, individually and collectively many of his Preludes, Etudes, and Mazurkas stand as the ultimate “little bits” (the composer’s own description of the Preludes, the shortest of the set of 24 weighing in at 16 measures). The Nocturnes, 19 in all, are a special species in the Chopin canon, for in sighing soulfulness and ephemeral expressiveness most of them represent the composer at his most intimate. That Chopin has apparently been wrongly credited with originating the genre of the romantic “night piece” should certainly not be an issue in devaluing his Nocturnes, but for the sake of historical accuracy John Field (1782-1837) actually had the semi-legal copyright.
The Dublin-born Field was a pianist of wide acclaim throughout Europe. A student of Muzio Clementi and an employee in his piano shop, Field composed voluminously, with, among other pieces to his credit, eight piano concertos and 17 Nocturnes, the first three appearing in 1814, when Chopin was four. Most authors of books on Chopin are loath to acknowledge any influence by the Irish composer on the Polish master, but one writer, David Branson, undertook to do an entire book on the subject (John Field and Chopin, St. Martin’s Press) and takes great pains to illustrate the connection.
Another author who does not discount the Field effect is Herbert Weinstock, who in his book Chopin, writes in part, “Field is a recklessly neglected second-flight master, and by his numerous nocturnes bequeathed to Chopin more than their designation….Chopin’s best night pieces can be described fairly as what a genius did with the sort of materials that Field invented and used. Chopin took the essentials of the nocturne nature and intensified them a thousandfold.”
Even if one is convinced of Field’s pioneering work in the genre of the Nocturne, Chopin’s position as a supreme practitioner in the field (pun intended) can’t possibly be threatened. His piano style fully exploited the singing quality of the instrument and embodied a whole world of sonorities resulting essentially from unique wide-spread figures that accompanied long-breathed melodies and the fanciful, exquisite filigree that ornamented them. Also, his use of the sustaining pedal greatly amplified the distinctive sonority he sought, just as the alternate slowing down and acceleration of tempo (rubato) he employed contributed enormously to a poetic ambiance. On the level of sheer music apart from pianistics, Chopin introduced into his harmonic structure the element of chromaticism that guided virtually all composers who came after him. The influential critic François-Joseph Fétis, writing of Chopin’s debut in Paris in 1832, was prescient when he said, “I find in the inspirations of M. Chopin indications of a change in form that may in the future exercise considerable influence on this branch of art.”
Chopin’s 19 Nocturnes vary not only in length but also in emotional tenor, some dreamy, some teary heart-on-sleeve, some chins-up stoic. The E-major Nocturne on this program is the 18th and last of the composer’s works in the form to be published in his lifetime. (An early Nocturne was published posthumously.) It strikes a happy balance formally and temperamentally, having a main section that has a lovely, easy-flowing melody complete with some flying filigree, all of this held fast by a rather static chordal accompaniment. A contrasting section that follows, call it part B, begins with the left hand breaking free with rapidly-moving notes that continue as important companions to a new melody. This moves directly into the crux of the matter, a wonderfully agitated, somewhat syncopated section whose restlessness provides high expressive contrast with the poised main theme, which returns, shortened, to be followed by part B. As Chopin so often did, he ends here with a drooping two measure epilogue that may seem to some extraneous. But, who wants to second-guess Chopin?
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the Philharmonic program book.