The Place of the Nocturne in Musical Art

By Francesco Berger, Hon. R. A. M.

There can be little doubt that the French word, nocturne (Italian: notturno), originally meant a “night piece;” but it has little in common with the German Nachtstuck, which is its literal translation. I do not remember to have encountered the German title in the works of any composer except Schumann, and his are somber compositions, very characteristic of himself, but not to be reckoned among his most successful or most popular pieces. The French and Italian designations cover a variety of short elegant pieces, contributed by composers of varying nationality, foremost among whom must be ranked those written by the Pole Chopin and the Irishman John Field, sometimes spoken of as Russian Field because of his residence in Russia.

But the term has long since ceased to signify anything nocturnal, and has come to be applied to slow movements in general of a delicate or sentimental character, and in this sense it might reasonably include more than one of Beethoven’s slow movements. The title has not yet been applied to a slow movement on any other instrument than the pianoforte, though there can be no reason why it should not; but it has found its way into the orchestra, several composers having so named an orchestral piece. Mendelssohn has bequeathed to use a lovely Notturno in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream music – a composition as imaginative and original as nay that his elegant and poetical muse ever inspired. It is the very apotheosis of moonlight music, not only by reason of its slow measured, velvet footed metre and tune, but even more so by its exquisite tone color, the ingenuity of which has probably served as model to some of his successors, though none has had the genius to surpass it. Mozart has left us a least one Notturno for strings. What did that colossal musician not leave us? And the slow movement in Beethoven’s Septet is practically a lovely notturno, though not so named by the composer.

Nocturnes by Raff and Schumann

Schumann’s pianoforte piece Des Abends is a real notturno – tender, poetical, suggestive; a successful attempt to represent in music the feelings aroused in us by contemplating the mellowed tinges of sunset blending with nascent twilight; a veritable Turner in sound. But it is the sentiment which is intended to be aroused, and not the scene which is depicted; therefore the proper translation of the composer’s title is At Eventide, and not as frequently quoted Evening. The two descriptions should not be confounded.

Raff in his Abends had a similar aim; to interpret the “sentiment” which a serene evening twilight creates, and most beautifully has he done so – it is Raff at his best. The present writer recalls the admirable rendering of it by Hans von Bulow, who, fine musician tough we know him to have been, was not always in sympathy with sentimental music. But when he played his little piece he seemed to discard his “Ercles vein,” and to prove the versatility of his talent by all the charm of touch and all the refinement of expression which his artist nature could supply. Especially remarkable was the contrasted tone he infused into the coda, where the two subjects are so cleverly combined.

When we come to consider Chopin’s nocturnes, it is difficult to find words with which to express our admiration. A dozen marks of exclamation will not suffice; fresh adjectives would have to be coined. Their gifted composer has left us nothing more worthy of his genius than these pieces; nothing in which he is more completely himself, which is tantamount to saying that they are totally above and beyond all praise.

Chopin’s Unequalled Genius

On the very threshold of any critical examination of them, we are struck with their extraordinary diversity. There is not one that in the least resembles any of the others, excepting that they all bear the unmistakable feature about them is the contrast Chopin was able to command between their first and second subjects. In this Beethoven only was his equal; or, rather, Chopin more closely approached Beethoven in this matter than any other composer has. But this scarcely conveys all they had in common; for, besides absolute contrast, there is a certain relation between their first and second subjects – a sort of outcome or evolution which makes it impossible to conceive of any other second subject taking the place of the actual one in a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin nocturne, so intimately and indissolubly are they bound together in spite of apparent contrast. Another point of resemblance between the two masters is the complete absence of all redundance; not a single bar or note could be eliminated, every particle is essential to the structure of the whole. And still another feature common to both, though a minor point, is found in the codas. No other composers are so completely successful in combining importance, appropriateness and proportion within the small space of a coda, sometimes extending to only six or eight bars, and yet, like the summing up of a judge at the end of a trial, conveying all that is essential.

A volume of Chopin’s nocturnes now before me contains nineteen; but these include two which ought not to be classed with the others, viz.; the Berceuse Op. 57, and Op. 37, No. 2 (in G) which from its nature is more a barcarolle than a nocturne. A berceuse is a slumber song, or more accurately a cradle song, and as such associated with a cradle and a child; but a child can scarcely be interested in a Chopin nocturne, and therefore the two words should not be confounded. A cradle song is a sort of lullaby, and should have a pronounced rocking accompaniment, or something approaching thereto, and Chopin’s is therefore properly styled a berceuse. It is a highly ingenious composition, consisting of a number of very original variations on a simple theme built on a basso ostinato of alternation tonic and dominant which underlies the entire piece, without any other harmonies. In the whole range of pianoforte music there is not another example of this sort. Before the penultimate variation there are some shakes which, in many editions, are misprinted, and are consequently wrongly played. They should be descending shakes – that is, each should commence with the upper auxiliary note, so that they would work out thus: C flat and B double flat, B double flat and A flat, B single flat and A flat. The coloring and pedaling of the piece are of course, matters of taste; but as there is no absolute forte in its entire length, it will probably respond most nearly to the composer’s intention if the una corda pedal is applied all through it without intermission, and the sustaining pedal (with rare exceptions) be added to the first half of each bar. The gossamer texture of the whole piece removes it completely out of the range of any but very expert players, and even for these it is an exacting though fascinating task. The fingering for the left hand has been considerably discussed. The most artistic reading is to treat the low bass note as quasi pizzicato using the middle finger and striking it staccato, the hand being thereby free to make one legato group of the remainder of each bar, by gliding off D flat on to C.

The Character of the Berceuse

Op. 37, No 2 (in G), which, as already mentioned, is not a notturno at all, has a two part song for its first subject and a rocking or swaying movement for its second. The two bars which connect these subjects demand special attention, for, unless properly phrased, they sound discordant and full of false relation. The harmonies are controlled by the left hand. The second subject presents a difficulty in the fingering of the right hand, which may be overcome and has the advantage of being applicable whenever the figure recurs in other keys. Like most other advantages, it has its compensating disadvantage – that the harmonies have to be released somewhat sooner than they otherwise would be. But this gain can be rectified by judicious application of the pedal, so that the break becomes all but imperceptible.

Our friend the pedal often has to come to the rescue in modern music, and to do him justice, he is ever ready to do so; so ready indeed, so handy (or rather footy) that many players conceive a great affection for him, and seem loth to part with him when once they have captured him, clinging to his protecting support through conflicting harmonies, and relying upon his extenuating the circumstance of their wrong notes. Chapters might be written upon the abuse of this perfectly harmless, nay beneficent, friend – a friend in need to many, and a friend indeed to all – but to do so would lead too far from the purport of this article. Before leaving this nocturne, attention is directed to the concluding bars as an instance of what is mentioned in the early portion of these remarks; the convincing import of this short coda, only seven bars, but eloquent and satisfying.

The second nocturne (Op. 2, No. 2, in E flat) is the most widely known and most frequently heard of all. It used not to be taken very slowly until that great artist Sarasate adapted it and played it on the violin in his own inimitable fashion. He took it at a considerably slower tempo than had been customary; and if the pianoforte is good enough to permit this, it is a decided improvement to do so; but it all depends on that, as the hangman said of his rope! The cadenza at the end admits – as in similar cases in other pieces – of an indefinite repetition of the little group of four notes and is a bit of virtuosity for which amateurs are particularly grateful.

More than once in the pages of these nocturnes we meet with the direction, doppio movimento. Literally translated, this means “double movement;” but it is evident that “doubly quick” is intended. Like many another composer’s indication, this must be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. A quickened pace, even if not amounting to exactly double, will in most cases be found sufficient.

These few remarks do not exhaust, even remotely all that might be said about Chopin’s nocturnes. His endless invention of “passages” (a gift which so great a master as Mendelssohn all but envied), his extended arpeggio for the left hand, his effective ornamentation and embroidery, his rich modulations and unexpected enharmonic changes, are points that every student has long since discovered and learnt to appreciate.

Field and Dohler

Of Field’s nocturnes, lovely of their kind, little more need here be said than that they all bear a strong family likeness, and that they are all “very music pretty.” He was neither the pianist nor the musician that Chopin was, and these compositions reveal his weak points quite as much as they do his strong ones. A sweet naivete runs through them all; but there is too much sameness and tameness about them to satisfy the modern palate. One cannot thrive on tartlets only, however dainty their flavor. Rubinstein was very fond of playing one or another of them; and, rendered as he alone could render them, they sounded delightful, especially as he always sandwiched them between more strenuous stuff. And Liszt has immortalized them by writing about then in his own glowing language. So Field may be called fortunate in his champions.

Theodore Dohler was a prolific composer of pianoforte pieces of a light kind, and his one Nocturne in D flat is perhaps his best work. It is melodious, elegant and effective, and some years ago it was very much en vogue, and I have heard it played in public with much success. Even today it may be cited as good, sound pianoforte music, with some effects that can be studied with profit.

It is all very well for Schumann and his immediate followers to ridicule and anathematize his contemporaries and in his Davidsbundler to set up as a Judge Jeffreys of them and their productions. Much as I respect Schumann, and much as I love the greater part of his music (I do not say all), I cannot help asserting that in the pianoforte music of Henri Herz, Hunten, Schuloff, Dohler, Chas. Mayer, Leopld de Meyer, Rossellen, Goria, Gottschalk, and some others, I find among much that is inferior a sufficient number of pieces that are not so by any means. All these men have written some music that is good music, and Schumann in denouncing them must have been either jealous of their momentary popularity (which he could have afforded to ignore) or unacquainted with their better work. Both in Schumann and in Brahms (but especially in the first named) one detects a decided effort to avoid the beaten track – a desire to be original at whatever cost.

This is unquestionably right; but, on the other hand, it has led to the production of music which has little else to recommend it than the virtue of not being commonplace. Because a piece, instead of being written in the easy key of G minor, appears in the more difficult one of G sharp minor, because its chords of the dominant, instead of resolving into the tonic, resolve into double sharp; because it avoids bravura passages which include the top notes of the keyboard, and consequently limits itself to the middle register of the clavier; because it is built up of one figure worked a outrance, thereby resembling an etude more than a piece of pleasure giving music; because the nuances are marked in German instead of in the familiar Italian; I say, because of these restrictions and innovations, it does not necessarily follow that the world gains much or that the art is enriched. Though Schumann, when at his best, is the great composer we all recognize, one could easily point to pages of his work not superior to some by the Philistines whom he so mercilessly slaughters.

But the world is still waiting – and so far waiting in vain – for a composer who shall be able to excise Chopin in his nocturnes or in his other works.