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The nocturne is most distinctively Chopin’s own form. He composed them throughout his career, they were his most popular works with his contemporaries, and most of them were published in his lifetime. And although they had influential predecessors – from the Irish pianist John Field, for one – and a host of imitations, it is Chopin’s nocturnes that continue to define the form.
The two Nocturnes of Op. 27 were composed in 1835 and published the following year in Leipzig, Paris, and London, dedicated to the Countess Thérèse d’Appony, in whose salon Chopin often appeared. The expected dreamy sensitivity projected by a bel canto melody over rippling broken chords is there in abundance in both works. But so too are the sublime touches of genius with which Chopin elevated the received archetype. The very beginning of the C-sharp-minor Nocturne, for example, is in harmonic no-man’s land, with no third in the arpeggio. The melody starts on E-natural, giving us the C-sharp-minor home key, but immediately moves up a half-step, creating a chromatic yearning in the melody as well as a modulatory restlessness in the harmony – melody, harmony, and texture are inseparable in Chopin. This Nocturne includes a contrasting middle section, a feature of many of Chopin’s essays in the form. It has a dancing character midway between waltz and mazurka, and it rises to a tremendous climax before wending its chromatic way back to the home key, introduced by a little left-hand cadenza in octaves.
The ensuing recollection of the opening ends with a coda in C-sharp major, which links it to its opus mate, since C-sharp and D-flat are the same pitch. The D-flat Nocturne does not have a middle section, but contrast is built into music. There are basically three strophes, each beginning with the same utterly characteristic single-note melody, which then grows more agitated, more mazurka-like, and fuller in texture. This Nocturne too has a coda, extended with a few bars of duet writing for the right hand, which then floats in sixths off the end of the keyboard.
In September 1835, Chopin visited Leipzig and the home of the noted piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, father of the young pianist who would become Clara Schumann. (Then just turned 16, she had already been playing Chopin’s music for several years.) There Chopin met Robert Schumann for the first time, and Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin played the D-flat Nocturne, much impressing Mendelssohn, who wrote to his sister Fanny that Chopin “has also such a lovely new notturno, a considerable part of which I learnt by ear....”
– John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.