Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1
The Nocturne in B flat minor emerges from silence and to silence returns. It has the form of an ample song in which a graceful melody fills the outer sections. At first it rolls along quietly, enlivened by surging waves of ornaments. An inner tension leads to a climax, to a sudden rush of appassionato expression, enclosed within a handful of bars. The Nocturne’s middle section proceeds in the relative key of D flat major. This takes us into a strange other world: a melody without ornaments, almost ascetic and strong, led in octaves sotto voce, and so softened, repeating the same phrases over and over again. In those phrases, one can detect the rhythms of a mazurka and a motif from the old song ‘Chmiel’ [Hops]. The whole thing flows along as if in a trance or in great meditation. But then a sudden change occurs: we hear sonorous music built from sequences of sixths and thirds, immediately followed by its distant echo. Next the graceful melody from the beginning returns dolcissimo, before bursting into a final flourish and dying away in ppp, though not in the key of B flat minor, but in B flat major. Chopin would employ an optimistic major-mode ending for works adhering to a minor key – a practice taken from Bach – many times in his later works.
Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2
Chopin displays a masterful use of a single kind of wondrously subtle accompaniment throughout this work. And he derived the entire nocturne from a single theme subjected to variations, altered through the continual surges and ebbs of ethereal ornaments and figurations. Only in the conclusion of the work does he introduce a variant: a sudden eruption of expression leading to a concise apotheosis – just as suddenly broken off and stilled.
Nocturne in C minor Op. 48 No. 1
The melody of the Nocturne in C minor unfolds lento and mezzo voce (slowly and half-voice). The opening notes do not flow, but fall – amid rests – like words of existential weight. Tadeusz Zieliński aptly opines that the melody of the Nocturne ‘sounds like a lofty, inspired song filled with the gravity of its message, genuine pathos and a tragic majesty’. With every bar, the melody moves closer to the point of culmination, before plummeting downwards in a tense, expressively rhapsodic recitative and immersing itself in the contemplative sounds of a chorale. The chorale grows in strength, despite the fact that the violent music of double octaves forces its way in between its chords. André Gide called this moment ‘the sudden irruption of wind-blasts’. For the reprise of the opening theme, Gide found the following description: ‘a triumph of the spiritual element over the elements unleashed at the beginning’. There is indeed something uniquely grand in the way the form here masters the emotions, which are packed with sound.
Kleczyński heard in this music ‘the soul’s disquietude’. Marceli Antoni Szulc had the impression that ‘this magnificent hymn is proclaimed not by a feeble piano, but by a mighty organ – midst the sound of trombones and kettle drums’. Ferdynand Hoesick recalled that the C minor Nocturne in Paderewski’s rendition gave the impression of a true ‘eroica’ among Chopin’s nocturnes.
Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1
The first dozen bars or so of the Nocturne in F minor, which together with the Nocturne in E flat major comprises opus 55, were written into the album of Elizabeth Sheremetev.
The opening theme, which is also the principal theme of this work, returns often, slightly altered nearly every time. It bears a melancholy that is deepened by the almost obsessive repetition of the initial melody, which proceeds in a tempo and rhythm characteristic of nocturne contemplation. This elegiac aura is contrasted with a brief counter-theme: music that escapes for a moment into a realm of brighter sonorities (A flat major), though it does so in vain.
All that we have heard up to this point was merely a foretaste of what is to follow. And follow it does. It takes the form of a collision between the violent octaves of an aggressive recitative and the calm strength of the chords that stand opposite. The tumult leads to a climax, a watershed. The exalted passage of the recitative leads the narrative back into the melancholy aura from which it emerged. Yet Chopin does not leave the listener in that mood till the end. Following the example of Bach, he closes the work with a ray of hope, by changing a single note, as a result of which the key of F minor becomes F major. For the pianist, it is a perilous moment, as one easily falls into a naive-sentimental mood. The famous pianist and editor Theodor Kullak summarised that passage from the minor to the major with an ironical sigh: ‘And so, thank God, the goal is reached!’
Prelude No. 4 Op. 28 in E minor
The Prelude in E minor belongs to the category of elegiac preludes: it moves in dark, even sombre colours. Particularly distinctive here is the insistent repetition of a ‘seconds’ motif (in this instance a minor second), characteristic of the cycle as a whole. It proceeds at a slow tempo, is extremely succinct and adheres to a muted dynamic range.
Prelude No. 6 Op. 28 in B minor
The sixth Prelude, in B minor, returns to the elegiac mood of the Prelude in E minor. In the melody, shifted into the cello register, a keening tone has been heard. George Sand was the first listener to note that it ‘casts the soul into fearful depression’. It is one of the two preludes described as ‘raindrop’, on account of the insistent repetition of notes in the upper part.
Prelude No. 13 Op. 28 in F sharp major
The thirteenth Prelude, in F sharp major, brings music of the character of a nocturnein miniature, encapsulated in thirty-eight bars. It moves along slowly, as if the understated song had at times a hint of beseeching prayer about it (that is how it is heard by one of Chopin’s monographers) and at times soared into ecstasy.
Prelude No. 15 Op. 28 in D flat major
One of the most famous Preludes, the fifteenth, strikes one at first as an oasis of peace and calm. However, the transition from the bright key of D flat major to the tenebrous C sharp minor brings dark, gloomy, disturbing sonorities.
In the semantic interpretation of George Sand, this is the moment when ‘the ghosts of dead monks walk in mournful procession’. Chopin himself – adding the word ‘rainy’ to a pupil’s copy of this music – drew attention to another aspect of this work, namely the relentlessness and monotony with which a single note (always the same) resounds throughout the whole prelude, evoking imitative associations.
‘The rains that fall here are unheard of anywhere else’, Sand informed her friend Charlotte Marliani in Paris. ‘Our poor Chopin is weak and ailing’.
In George Sand’s memoirs, we even find a description of how this prelude came to be written, in the midst of rainy weather that was so bothersome to the inhabitants of the deserted charterhouse. The music of the prelude evoked imitative associations in Mrs Sand, and she betrayed this impression to Chopin. He did not approve. When she asked him – as she writes – ‘to listen to the patter of the raindrops that were indeed falling on the roof, he denied that he could hear them’. And – as the writer goes on to relate – he even grew angry about what she called imitative harmony. He protested with all his might against the puerility of those notions of the imitation of things heard. ‘And he was right’, she added. However, to confuse the picture a little more, it is worth mentioning that a few years later – as the sheet music belonging to one of his pupils attests – Chopin himself called the fifteenth Prelude (in D flat major) the ‘Raindrop’.
Prelude No. 20 Op. 28 in C minor
The concise, thirteen-bar Prelude in C minor is a chorale. It would be hard to outdo the condensation of form, texture and expression that it displays. For the first four bars, a questioning melody proceeds in a largo tempo (the slowest of the slow) and a fortissimo dynamic, and in the utmost concentration, with gravity, simplicity and loftiness. The answering melody also moves slowly, but in a softer voice. The final bars bring only a distant echo of that response.
Prelude No. 21 Op. 28 in B flat major
Out of the quiet of the last bars of the C minor Prelude blooms the cantilena of the B flat major Prelude (No. 21), supremely lovely in its Classical simplicity. It seems to be an echo of the piece that went before. Marceli Antoni Szulc describes it as follows: ‘everything here is melody and song, even the accompanying figures of the left hand’. That is just how the beginning of this work sounds. Its middle is filled with music that is brimful of dramatic resonance, leading to a climax that confounds expectations of a soothing culmination. Only after the climax has passed does the music die down and fade, though that fading proves delusive. Hanging in the air is the catastrophe of the finale, presaged by each subsequent part of the cycle.
Prelude No. 22 Op. 28 in G minor
A direct augury of the ultimate apocalypse is the Prelude in G minor (No. 22). This has something of a surreal ballade about it: a galloping rhythm in a balladic 6/8 metre, reined in by the play of syncopations, in a troubled tempo, molto agitato. The last bars of the G minor Prelude seem to lead straight to the finale.
Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor
Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor, known as the "Revolutionary Étude" or the "Étude on the Bombardment of Warsaw", is a solo piano work by Frédéric Chopin written circa 1831, and the last in his first set, Etudes, Op. 10, dedicated "à son ami Franz Liszt" ("to his friend Franz Liszt").
The 12th Étude appeared around the same time as the November Uprising in 1831. Chopin poured his emotions on the matter into many pieces that he composed at that time, the "Revolutionary Étude" standing out as the most notable example. Upon conclusion of Poland's failed revolution against Russia, he cried "All this has caused me much pain. Who could have foreseen it!"
Unlike études of prior periods (works designed to emphasize and develop particular aspects of musical technique), the romantic études of composers such as Chopin and Liszt are fully developed musical concert pieces, but still continue to represent a goal of developing stronger technique. In the case of Op. 10, No. 12, the technique required in the opening bars is playing long, loud descending runs, which forms a dominant seventh chord introductory build-up to the main theme. The length and the repetition of these rapid passages distinguishes the "Revolutionary" from other études. The rest of the passage focuses on the left hand fingering scales and arpeggios.
Although the greatest challenge lies with the relentless left hand semiquavers, the right hand is also challenged by the cross-rhythms which are used with increasing sophistication to handle the same theme in various successive parallel passages.
The left hand technique in this piece involves evenly played semiquavers throughout. The structure is of the strophic form (A–A′–coda). Some may also argue that it is of the ternary form (A–B–A–coda). The opening broken chords (diminished chord with an added passing note) and downward passages transition into the main appassionato melody. The octave melody's dotted rhythms and the continuous accompaniment give an impression of tension. The piece ends by recalling the opening in a final descending sweep (with both hands) descending to a C major chord, although within a context that draws its expected function as a resolution into question.
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
This piece was written in 1831, during the November Uprising against the Russian Empire. A friend of Chopin's, Thomas Albrecht, to whom it was dedicated, convinced him to stay in Vienna, away from his family in Poland, to build his musical career. During this time he only played one concert, where he performed his concerto in E minor. Because of the struggle and the war, his compositions changed from pieces of a brilliant style to works in a new, darker tonality. Chopin composed this piece and several of the Opus 10 etudes around the same time.
Scherzo is "joke" in Italian, and Robert Schumann commented on the work's apparent disregard for its title: "How is 'gravity' to clothe itself if 'jest' goes about in dark veils?" It is dark, suspenseful, and full of chaos - the first clear melody is in the slow B major middle section, but returns to a chaotic murmur soon after. It is hypothesized that this portrayed Chopin's feelings toward the war, or told a story about rebellion in his homeland. This may reflect Brahms' sentiment with his own ironic scherzos.
This first Scherzo takes A-B-A-Coda form and begins with two chords in fortissimo. At tremendous speed, a series of dramatic outbursts in the B minor tonic follows. Near the center of the piece, the music leads into a slower section in B major; finally one hears a tangible melody in the middle register, surrounded by accompaniment in both the left and upper right hands. Chopin quotes here from an old Polish Christmas song (Lulajże Jezuniu); the tempo in this section is marked Molto più lento. The B major area dissolves as the harmony mysteriously changes character via secondary dominant. The two chords from the beginning reappear, superimposed over vestiges of the middle section. Then the beginning presto repeats itself in the familiar minor tonic.
The lead-in to the dramatic, virtuosic coda is similar to the approach toward the Molto più lento, but slightly different (as it is with Chopin's Second and Third Scherzi). This final section incorporates dizzying arpeggiated flights up and down almost the entire keyboard, suspended by a climactic series of nine ten-note chords (E♯ diminished seventh (with diminished third), augmented sixth chordin root position, secondary leading-tone chord of tonic B). After the resolution and a rapid chromatic ascent over four octaves in both hands, the piece comes to a triumphant conclusion via a bold minor plagal cadence.