Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth and emotion for both the pianist and listener. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception producing what are generally considered to be among the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are variations on this idea, however, this formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and beautiful piano music.
Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my students presented the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor op. posth a few weeks ago and we have been working hard on various aspects. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.
There are so many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole variety of touches and colour. It’s possible to work at this piece on so many levels and a Grade 8 or diploma exam is not in any way equivalent in standard to the rendition by Claudio Arrau (one of the greatest pianists of the Twentieth Century), linked below, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts on how to approach and practice this work (or any similar style piece) on a fairly basic level.
The opening chords can present a few problems and require consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. It’s particularly daunting starting off with an opening such as this, where each note must sound fully; being perfectly voiced and very quiet all at the same time. The trick (other than trying your concert piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it is completely legato by constantly changing fingers and employing sparse pedalling. By making sure your arm weight is transferred to your fourth and fifth finger, you should be able to produce a beautiful sound in the melody line allowing all other notes to fade into the background. Don’t be afraid to change fingers frequently in a legato melodic line – it’s much more effective and ‘clean’ than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys as slowly as you dare, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the chordal progression is effective when played softer, like an echo. Here’s the original passage;
And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);
After the introduction the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a an exquisite right hand melody prevails. The melody, similar to that in many of Chopin’s Nocturnes, has a wonderful operatic quality which could be viewed as the ‘singer’ and left hand or bass clef part (the accompaniment), as the ‘accompanist’, therefore, the pianist has to engage in being both, effectively occupying both roles at once!
There are three layers of sound in this work;
1. The melodic material in the right hand.
2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand.
3. The bottom of the chord in the bass line which is generally the first quaver of every minim group which occur twice in every bar (generally).
It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone because it requires absolute consistency and evenness with regard to rhythm and tone. This work does not benefit from being over pedalled or from too much rubato. Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music generally, but even the composer himself always insisted on a rhythmical bass proclaiming, ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra.‘ Claudio Arrau’s performance (linked below) does provide an extraordinary illustration of perfect yet slightly exaggerated rubato.
Use a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. This practice technique works effectively in lots of other piano music too. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as mentioned above, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (you can afford to hold this note a tiny bit longer than the other quavers), because they are providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in this extract);
It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory. Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ layer of sound so therefore should always be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes. A flexible wrist and a rotational hand movement can help here allowing more control over the amount of sound distributed to each note. If you can, practice the left without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As you become more secure with the bass part, so you can add pedal. It’s crucial to listen to your pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious however, it is easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly. Sometimes it’s beneficial to play the left hand part with both hands allowing for complete assimilation of the bass line.
The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass, the colourful chromatic inflections imparting drama, artistry and elegance, synonymous with Chopin’s style. A free wrist with plenty of arm weight provides a good sound; even the pianissimos need proper arm weight and the overall sound needs to project fully. The success of this line relies on an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Study each two or four bar phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting your sound accordingly. The melody should rise and fall enabling the dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.
The tricky ornamental passagework and scalic runs can be easily negotiated by working again with a full sound, encouraging all fingers to work completely (make sure you have worked out all your fingering first) then experiment with different types of articulation; complete clarity is desired in every figuration. After this, a lighter approach should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until you feel secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until you have a total rhythmic grasp and only then start thinking about rubato.
Chopin has marked all musical details very thoroughly, so if you can colour each layer of sound, you will be on your way to playing any Nocturne effectively.
And a performance of the Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor by Maestro Claudio Arrau…..
You can read a more in-depth, detailed, updated version of this blog post here.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.